The standard method for obtaining embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of human embryos. This raises many ethical and political questions and concerns.

In papers published earlier this week, two research teams, from Kyoto University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, succeeded in reprogramming skin cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. As this technique does not involve human embryos, ethical concerns are considerably diminished.

The team at Kyoto University, led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, found that four factors, known as Oct3/4, Sox2, c-Myc, and Klf4, could provide differentiated fibroblast cells the pluripotency normally reserved for embryonic stem cells. These four factors function to control the activity of other genes. They are also known to play a role in early stage embryonic stem cell identity determination.

A simple recipe, which includes these four ingredients, can transform adult human skin cells into cells that resemble embryonic stem cells. According to the researchers, the converted cells would have many of the physical, growth and genetic features typically found in embryonic stem cells and be able to differentiate in order to produce other types of tissues. The potential applications include reversal of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by neuronal regeneration using stem cells.