James Thomson (Photo: N.Y. Times)
The scientist who helped ignite cultural and political controversy with the use of embryos in stem-cell research believes his new discovery – using ordinary adult skin cells – means the war is virtually over.
“A decade from now, this will be just a funny historical footnote,” James A. Thomson told the New York Times in an interview.
Thomson’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin was one of two that announced Tuesday a new way to turn ordinary human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without using a human embryo.
The technique involves adding four genes to ordinary adult skin cells.
Stem cells are used to research treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s because of their ability to turn into any of the body’s 220 cell types. Scientists hope it eventually will be possible to use the cells to grow replacement tissues for patients.
Thomson, 48, has a degree in biophysics from the University of Illinois and two doctorates from the University of Pennsylvania, one in veterinary medicine and one in molecular biology.
In 1998, his laboratory was one of two that became the first to remove stem cells from human embryos, which destroyed the embryos in the process.
Thomson told the Times he had ethical concerns about embryonic research from the beginning.
“If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough,” he said. “I thought long and hard about whether I would do it.”
Thomson said he decided to proceed because the work was important, and he was using embryos from fertility clinics that would have been destroyed anyway, because the couples no longer wanted them.
But he still regarded the use of human embryonic stem cells as “scary,” adding, “It was not known how it would be received.”
Thomson told the Times, however, he never anticipated the magnitude and passion of the stem-cell debate.
Now, though more work remains, he believes the path to a solution is clear, as it’s “actually fairly straightforward to repeat what we have done.”
“Isn’t it great to start a field and then to end it,” he said.
Meanwhile, critics of stem-cell research using human embryos have continued to point out that all of the clinical trials yielding success in the past several years have used adult stem cells.
As WND reported in January, Christian leaders from around the world hailed the announcement of research concluding stem cells could be derived from amniotic fluid.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson said at the time that the study “provides more evidence that there is no need to destroy human embryos in order to treat disease or otherwise benefit mankind. In fact, there are no clinical trials anywhere in the world where embryonic stem cells are being used in patients.”
At least 70 conditions already are being treated with stem cells from bone marrow and cord blood, and similar prospects are likely for stem cells from amniotic fluid, he said.