A Harvard expert in tissue engineering claims to have discovered a new type of stem cell which could make embryonic stem cells unnecessary. Writing in the magazine The Scientist, Dr Charles Vacanti, an anaesthetist at Harvard Medical School, says that spore-like cells” exist in all the tissues of the body which have the ability to turn into virtually any cell type. He calls them “the body’s natural repair cells”. In the laboratory, they can enlarge, develop, and differentiate into cell types expressing characteristics appropriate to the tissue environment from which they were initially isolated.
Convinced that these cells have the same potential as embryonic stem cells, Dr Vacanti argues that the practical difficulties of using ESCs are nearly insurmountable. Furthermore, they present intractable moral problems, he contends.
Whether the embryo is a human being, or a meaningless aggregation of cells, remains unknown. If it is a worthless aggregate of living cells, then we may do well to undertake scientific investigations. If, on the other hand, the human embryo indeed represents a human being, then I believe it would be immoral to conduct scientific investigations. If, at some point in time, an embryonic stem cell is determined to represent human life, we will be poorly judged as a society. When considering the seriousness of the issue, it seems reasonable to first demonstrate whether there is any real advantage to using embryonic cells, by studying non-human species, as this is a prerequisite in any other investigative field.”
Dr Vacanti is famed as an innovator in tissue engineering. He grew a human ear on the back of a mouse and has managed to restore a man’s thumb after it was crushed in an accident.
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