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The Man who cloned “Dolly the Sheep” urges shift away from the use of embryonic stem cells

by | Dec 3, 2011

By Dave Andrusko

Ian Wilmut

There’s so much going on that it’s easy for 99% of the public to think that Ian Wilmut, the cloner of “Dolly” the sheep, is still invested in cloning. He’s not, as a story in a California newspaper reminded us yet again yesterday. Moreover he is warning against the use of embryonic stem cells (ESC).

Indeed it appears as if Wilmut has already moved on from one alternative to ESCs–so called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC)–to direct programming, both of which are ethically unobjectionable.

iPSC cells are created when genes are added to normal (typically skin) cells to convert them to stem cells that behave very similarly to embryonic stem cells. By contrast in direct conversion a few tissue-specific genes are added to a cell to target the conversion of that cell directly into another tissue type, rather than go through the intermediary step of turning first into a pluripotent stem cell. The direct conversion route minimizes, if not eliminates altogether, a persistent problem: they are prone to form tumors.

The gist of Wilmut’s remarks, as reported by North Country Times’s Bradley J. Fikes, are nicely summarized in the headline:”Cloning pioneer urges shift away from embryonic stem cells.”

For our purposes Wilmut made two important points. First, direct programming (also called reprogramming) of adult cells into the type needed for therapy is gradually becoming a reality—and it’s safer!

Wilmut told an audience at the Salk Institute at the annual Stem Cell Meeting on the Mesa, “These reprogrammed cells appear likely to provide the anticipated benefits of embryonic stem cells without their risks, such as forming tumors,” according to Fikes. “That risk will make government very reluctant to approve the use of cells derived from embryonic cells when a safer alternative is feasible, said Wilmut, whose team of researchers cloned Dolly the sheep nearly 15 years ago.”

Second, California invested a whopping $3 billion into its stem cell program administered through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Originally it was virtually all supposed to go into embryonic stem cell research.

However, ESCs never panned out. Geron Corporation not only announced recently that it was cancelling its embryonic stem cell trials for acute spinal cord injury but abandoning the embryonic stem cell field altogether for financial reasons.

Recently money has been directed to research that uses adult stem cells (which Wilmut did not seem wildly enthusiastic about) and, presumably, direct programming which didn’t exist when the money was authorized in 2004 with Proposition 71.

But it’s also important to remember that adult stem cells already are a proven alternative to embryonic stem cells. They come from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood, and other tissues. They are treating thousands of patients around the globe, with an estimated 50,000 adult stem cell transplants occurring annually worldwide.

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