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Stem Cell Acquisition Without Embryonic Destruction

Twenty-four hours after human fertilization, the egg divides into two cells. After forty-eight hours it divides into four cells, and so on. After 96 hours, the fertilized egg continues to divide while remaining the same size, resulting in smaller cells which are strongly attached to each other.

Currently, human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines are derived from cells taken from the 8-cell stage of embryonic development. The strong cell adhesion at this stage is the reason for the destruction of the embryo when trying to acquire the hESCs. This process has variable success rates and the removed cells must be mixed with already established hESC lines to survive.

Scientists are hoping that a breakthrough in hESC acquisition will reduce ethical concerns and increase their ability to do clinically driven research. On July 9, 2008 at the conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, Dr. Hilde Van de Velde from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in Belgium reported that he has successfully derived a hESC line from a single cell taken at the 4-cell stage embryo. Dr. Van De Velde also stated that there was no need to mix the cell with other cultures after removal, thereby simplifying the procedure. This breakthrough in acquiring hESCs also contributed the knowledge that cells at the 4-cell stage of embryonic development are able to develop into all cell types of the body (called totipotent) which was previously unknown.

Embryonic stem cell research has been slowed in the U.S. by governmental policies based on ethical concerns regarding the use of embryos in research. Voters in Michigan are currently voting on a ballot measure that would lift the existing ban on stem cell research so that unused embryos from fertility clinics, which would normally be disposed of, can be used in research. Despite such bans, major progress is still being made. For example, scientists recently were able to treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy in mice models using stem cells. Also, a rare form of cancer called Multiple Myeloma which affects the plasma cells in bone marrow, thereby destroying patient’s bones, has been treated in humans using stem cell therapy.

The new technique may decrease ethical concerns by allowing the removal of hESCs without the destruction of the embryo. Risks to the embryo may still remain, and current future work is aimed at determining if the removal of cells at the 4-cell stage has an impact on healthy child development.

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