The world of medical research was put into a spin last week. The respected scientific journals Nature and Cell Stem Cell both carried results of studies undertaken by three research teams — one in Japan and two in the US — claiming success in converting skin cells in mice back to an embryonic state.

The promising results had been brought about by a simple bio-chemical technique involving the insertion of four genes. No embryos were involved. Doors to research seemingly barred by legislation based on ethical concerns over the use of human embryos to obtain stems cells may have been prised open.

The production of cells to study drug treatments and to predict how a patient’s disease might progress appears feasible. Important as these developments are, scientists caution against dropping research involving embryos. “You don’t shoot one horse until the race is run”, as Australian scientist Dr Peter Mountford pointed out to The Sydney Morning Herald last week.

So what are the objections raised in some quarters to this type of research and the eventual application of these therapies? Therapeutic cloning — or “somatic cell nuclear transfer” — occurs when the nucleus of an ordinary cell (in future it is hoped this will come from the patient) is inserted into an egg that has been emptied of its nucleus. Several days later, an embryo forms into a sphere (or “blastocyst”) from which the stem cells are extracted.

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