The February 2008 issue of First Things is now available online to non-subscribers. One of the most interesting pieces is that of Maureen Condic regarding recent breakthroughs in stem cell research. No one can doubt the importance of stem cells in medical research, or the promise they hold, however, there have been a number of intense ethical dilemmas regarding their use, parrticularly the use of embryonic stem cells. Now, however, there seems to be some movement from a scientific front that may make the debate moot.
A true, no-cost resolution of a conflict, where the interests of all parties are served without compromise, is an exceedingly rare thing. Yet just such an unlikely resolution may be in hand for one of the most acrimonious conflicts of recent times: the debate over human embryonic stem cells.
Research groups in Japan and the United States have shown that ordinary human skin cells can be converted to stem cells with all the important properties of human embryonic stem cells by a process termed direct reprogramming. Like embryonic stem cells, reprogrammed cells are pluripotent, able to generate all the cells of the body, and so they have been named induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs). Unlike human embryonic stem cells, however, IPSCs are genetically identical to patients and are generated without destroying human embryos or using either human or animal eggs.