Only a few days ago an article in the leading journal Nature brought amazing news. A Japanese team at Kyoto University has discovered how to reprogram skin cells so that they "dedifferentiate" into the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell. From this they can be morphed, theoretically, into any cell in the body, a property called pluripotency. It could be the Holy Grail of stem cell science: a technique that is both feasible and unambiguously ethical.
"Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I've never worked with either," says Shinya Yamanaka. The first instalment of his research appeared a year ago -- and was greeted with polite scepticism by his colleagues. At the time they were mesmerised by dreams of cloning embryos and dissecting them for their stem cells.
They say that the reprogrammed cells meet all the tests of pluripotent cells -- they form colonies, propagate continuously and form cancerous growths called teratomas, as well as producing chimaeras. "Its unbelievable, just amazing," says Hans Schöler, a German stem cell expert. "For me, it's like Dolly. It's that type of an accomplishment."...
With an ethical solution looking quite plausible, the pressure will be on scientists to explain why therapeutic cloning deserves to be legalised and funded. Two years ago, Dr Janet D. Rowley, an Australian working in the US who is an implacable foe of the Bush Administration's policy, dismissed ethical solutions like Yamanaka's. "We have extremely limited research dollars, and to use them to study these alternatives is wrong," she declared. "That money should be available for actual research." But now stem cells derived from embryos are starting to look like dead-end "alternatives."
Don't expect supporters of embryonic stem cell research to respond rationally, not in the short term, at least. The other day, Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel told the US House of Representatives as he voted to overturn the Bush policy: "It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, 'You don't have to do [embryonic] stem cell research.' "
Connect the dots, Mr Emanuel. Maybe you don't have to.