The a relatively new technique called induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells) could be the breakthrough needed to reinvigorate stem cell research and give hope to the millions of Americans suffering debilitating diseases.
Perhaps its biggest saving grace is that it holds the potential to sidestep the moral and ethical concerns raised by other research techniques.
There are currently three sources of stem cells for research. The first is embryonic stem cells derived from human embryos created in the process of in vitro fertilization. Due to the low success rates, excess embryos are routinely created in fertility clinics. Once a couple successfully becomes pregnant, the remaining embryos must be discarded, donated to other couples, frozen or used for research. Due to a variety of concerns most are simply discarded. However, those cells used for research are particularly powerful as they are capable of developing into any of the 220 different types of human cells.
Adult stem cells are derived from adult subjects. Unfortunately, these adult cells are very difficult to harvest and are very limited in number. More importantly adult stem cells are much less powerful than embryonic cells in that they can only develop into very few types of human cells. This severely limits their usefulness in treating disease.
A third source of stem cells has only recently been developed but shows great promise. These induced pluripotent stem cells or IPS cells are derived from adult cells such as skin cells. The process involves the use of viruses to insert human DNA into ordinary adult cells causing them to mimic the properties of embryonic stem cells. The outcome could have a massive impact on stem cell research since IPS cells have the flexibility and potential range of applications of embryonic stem cells without the ethical concerns.