There has been great resistance in this country to using stem cells derived from embryos for medical research, even though the alternative for those stem cells is to see them simply be destroyed. I've never understood this viewpoint (it would make sense to me if there was some possibility the embryos in question might actually be brought to term ... ), but that doesn't change the fact the resistance is there.
Embryonic stem cells are prized because of their pluripotency, which in theory might allow them to be used for a wide range of difficult-to-treat problems, most notably spinal injuries. Partly because of the sheer amount of time it takes to go through the research process, and partly because of delay caused by the Bush administration's lack of support for the research, it was only this past January that the FDA granted approval for the first human trials involving embryonic stem cells. It will be at least a couple more years before any definitive conclusions can be drawn from this initial trial.
Meanwhile, recent years have seen the development of an approach which attempts to circumvent the resistance to use of embryonic stem cells. Termed induced embyonic stem cells, the approach involves taking normally non-pluripotent cells and transforming them to be pluripotent. This has been done by introducing various types of viruses into the cells. After a period of roughly a month, some small percentage of these cells exhibit pluripotency, and these cells can be separated out and cultured to grow more.
Until now, however, there has been concern about any serious use of these cells because of the use of potentially harmful viruses to create them - no one has been sure elements of the virus are not left behind in the cells.
However, in potentially big news, a team of researchers from Canada and Scotland announced yesterday they have succeeded in creating induced pluripotent stem cells using a non-viral process. If the procedure works out, it could remove any need for embryos, and thereby remove the primary sticking point for most of those opposed to their use.
That doesn't mean research using embryonic stem cells should stop - it's possible this process won't work well, or won't create cells as useful as embryonic strains. Still, it would be nice if the reason for resistance could be removed, and the research could move forward unfettered.