A major breakthrough in stem cell research which could eliminate the use of human embryos could take the heat out of the therapeutic cloning debate, a leading expert said Wednesday.

Researchers announced on Tuesday a way to potentially gain unlimited access to stem cells without the use of embryos by using four genes to force human skin cells to regress back to embryonic stem cells.

The method would mean viable embryos would no longer need to be destroyed to extract stem cells.

Australian researcher Professor Alan Trounson, who was recently named head of the world's biggest research project into stem cell research, said the development was a breakthrough in genetic research.

"This is a very important development because you could take cells from patients with severe diseases like motor neurone disease or Parkinson's or diabetes and start to analyse the cause of the disease," he told national radio.

"But it also means that in the fullness of time we could probably take cells from the person and judge how they are going to respond to different drugs.

"And eventually, one hopes, with modification it will produce this technology to make cells for cell therapy for patients."

Trounson, currently at Monash University in Melbourne but soon to move to head the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine which has a research budget of 3.0 billion US dollars, said the technique demonstrated the trend away from controversial therapeutic cloning.

"I think this takes the edge off that particular issue because we appear to have a way in which we can change cells into the cell type we need to study in the laboratory without using human eggs and without forming an embryo of any kind," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Asked whether this trend could lead to the bypassing of the ethical cloning debate, he said: "I think that's correct."

SYDNEY, Nov 21, 2007 (AFP)


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