Members of the research team were to discuss their findings Monday. Preliminary results of the potentially groundbreaking research were disclosed Sunday on the Science magazine web site.
The scientists said they were able to show in their early research that the fused cell "was reprogrammed to its embryonic state."
"If future experiments indicate that this reprogrammed state is retained after removing the embryonic stem cell DNA — currently a formidable technical hurdle — the hybrid cells could theoretically be used to produce embryonic stem cells lines that are tailored to individual patients without the need to create and destroy human embryos," said a summary of the research reported on the Science site.
That could lead to creation of stem cells without having to use human eggs or make new human embryos in the process, thereby sidestepping much of the controversy over stem cell research.
Supporters of stem cell research say it could lead to treatments for diseases like cancer, Parkinson's and other injuries.
But up until now, the only way for scientists to turn a person's ordinary cell into a "personalized" one was to first turn that "ordinary" cell into an embryo and then destroy it, in order to retrieve the new stem cells growing inside.
It's become such an emotional issue, it has even pitted Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist against the president.
"I believe the president's policy should be modified," the Tennessee Republican, a physician,. "The limitations that were put in place in 2001 will over time slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases."
The Harvard researchers used laboratory grown human embryonic stem cells — such as the ones that President Bush has already approved for use by federally funded researchers — to essentially convert a skin cell into an embryonic stem cell itself.
If a number of hurdles can be overcome in subsequent research, the new technique "may circumvent some of the logistical and societal concerns" that have hampered much of the research in this country, Chad A. Cowan, Kevin Eggan and colleagues from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute report in the Science article.
The hybrid cells created by the team "had the appearance, growth rate, and several key genetic characteristics of human embryonic cells," the summary of their work said.
"They also behaved like embryonic cells, differentiating into cells from each of the three main tissue types that form in a developing embryo. The authors conclude that human embryonic cells have the ability to reprogram adult cell chromosomes following cell fusion."