By Hilary White

BOSTON, December 7, 2007 ( – Just weeks after what is being hailed as a major breakthrough in stem cell research where embryo-like cells were created from adult skin cells, a team of scientists have put the method to the test in successfully treating a common blood disease.

Two teams of researchers published the same results in two peer-review scientific journals early in November showing that stem cells, called IPS cells, with a plasticity equalling those of embryonic cells could be created by “deprogramming” ordinary human skin cells. Now another group has shown that sickle cell anaemia can be cured in mice using cells created by the method.

Sickle cell anaemia is a group of genetic disorders, characterized by a change in the shape of red blood cells, that prevents the distribution of oxygen to the body’s tissues. The disease is chronic and lifelong and may cause organ damage, such as stroke.

The journal Science reported today that scientists in a pair of teams under Prof. Rudolf Jaenisch at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and Prof. Tim Townes of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, successfully treated mice containing human sickle genes using a variant of the new deprogramming method.

Starting with cells from the tail skin of the diseased mice, the researchers introduced a virus carrying the four genes that reverted the cells to their earlier embryo-like state.

The faulty genes causing sickle cell disease were fixed and were changed into bone marrow precursors and returned to the bodies of the mice to produce more blood cells. Blood tests revealed that the disease was corrected.

“This demonstrates that IPS cells have the same potential for therapy as embryonic stem cells, without the ethical and practical issues raised in creating embryonic stem cells,” said Prof. Jaenisch.

As is normal in such research, the study’s authors cautioned that more work must be done before human trials or medical applications can be considered.

Professor Jaenisch has been a leading advocate of unethical cloning and destructive use of human embryos for stem cell research. He said, “We wouldn’t have known anything about IPS cells if we hadn’t worked with embryonic stem cells.”

“For the foreseeable future, there will remain a continued need for embryonic stem cells as the crucial assessment tool for measuring the therapeutic potential of IPS cells.”

Britain’s Dr. Ian Wilmut, one of the world’s most celebrated cloning scientists, announced at the time of the ‘reprogramming’ breakthrough that he would be giving up attempts to clone human beings in favour of the new method.

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