Harvesting human eggs and creating embryos for embryonic stem cells may soon become a thing of the past. Nature Science Update reported that four teams have verified that normal skin cells in mice can be reprogrammed to act identically to embryonic stem cells.

The technique, called “induced pluripotent stem cell” (iPS), holds promise to end the ethically-questionable practice of cloning human embryos then killing them for their stem cells. “If researchers succeed, it will make it relatively easy to produce cells that seem indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells, and that are genetically matched to individual patients,” wrote David Cyranoski.

This new practice not only overcomes the ethical questions: it is easier to do, and matches the cells to the patient. Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. “There’s no trick, no magic,” commented Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who pioneered the technique. Another researcher was so impressed, he commented, “It’s unbelievable, just amazing.” He compared the accomplishment to the cloning of Dolly the sheep: “It’s that type of accomplishment.”

What remains is to test the technique with human cells. It also remains to be seen if the cells can be transplanted back into the patient for therapeutic purposes. At least for now, biologists may have a safer and ethically favorable alternative for studying stem cells in the lab.

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