Breakthrough Uses No Human Embryos
have made ordinary human skin cells take on the chameleon-like
powers of embryonic stem cells, a startling breakthrough that might
someday deliver the medical payoffs of embryo cloning without the
controversy. … ‘This work represents a tremendous scientific
milestone the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers’ first
airplane,’ said Dr. Robert Lanza, chief science officer of Advanced
Cell Technology, which has been trying to extract stem cells from
cloned human embryos. ‘It’s a bit like learning how to turn lead
into gold,’ said Lanza.”
In the messy world of bioethical politics, truth and stands taken on the basis of principle don’t necessarily carry every day. But sometimes they can carry THE day.
Two incredibly important research papers, published online November 20, completely vindicate President Bush. Two renowned researchers have published results which show that embryonic-type stem cells can be produced directly from ordinary human cells, such as a skin cell, without first creating an embryo.
The work of Dr. James Thomson, published in Science, and Prof. Shinya Yamanaka, published in Cell, potentially means that all the controversies sparked by the use of stem cells from human embryos/cloning can be averted. No more persuading parents to “donate” so-called “spare embryos”; no more human embryos lethally harvested; no more creating human life (by cloning) to destroy it in a mad dash for stem cells; and no more inducements to women to super-ovulate to produce mountains of unfertilized human ova.
Writing about all the many ethically acceptable alternatives that have shown such promise in the wake of President Bush’s firm stance, bioethicist Wesley J. Smith concluded, “I believe that many of these exciting ‘alternative’ methods would not have been achieved but for President Bush’s stalwart stand promoting ethical stem-cell research.”
Writing at www.nationalreview.com, Smith observed, “Indeed, had the president followed the crowd instead of leading it, most research efforts would have been devoted to trying to perfect ESCR [embryonic stem cell research] and human-cloning research—which, despite copious funding, have not worked out yet as scientists originally hoped.”
So, what exactly did Drs. Thomson and Yamanaka discover? The lead paragraph of the San Francisco Chronicle story summarized the breakthrough this way: “Separate teams of scientists on two continents are reporting today that they have transformed ordinary human skin cells into stem cells using a technique pioneered last year in laboratory mice.” In other words, what Dr. Yamanaka demonstrated over the past year or so would work in mice—“direct reprogramming” (sometimes called “dedifferention”)—seems to work equally well in human beings.
The labs used different cell types. Yamanaka’s team, working at Kyoto University, reprogrammed skin cells from a woman’s face while Thomson and his colleagues, housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, worked with foreskin cells from a newborn, according to published accounts. After laborious trial-and-error, the teams inserted four genes into the skin cells “that are apparently used by eggs to start the natural embryonic development process,” the Chronicle reported, causing them “to produce a full complement of stem cells.”
Dr. Thomson said straightforwardly, “By any means we test them they are the same as embryonic stem cells.”
There are many other noteworthy facets to this powerfully encouraging story. For one, it is apparently now okay for reporters to point out the major problems associated with embryonic stem cells and cloning, even if they did not mention that all therapies to date have been based on stem cells obtained from ethically unobjectionable sources, such as skin, fat, bone marrow cells, cord blood, and amniotic fluid.
For another, we learn that Ian Wilmut (of Dolly the cloned sheep fame) has forsworn the use of cloning to produce stem cells and plans to pursue direct reprogramming instead. Wilmut told the Daily Telegraph, “The odds are that by the time we make nuclear transfer work in humans, direct reprogramming will work too.” He added, “I am anticipating that before too long we will be able to use the Yamanaka approach to achieve the same, without making human embryos. I have no doubt that in the long term, direct reprogramming will be more productive, though we can’t be sure exactly when, next year or five years into the future.”
well-deserved tribute to President Bush put it best. Because of his
“courageous leadership,” Smith wrote, “we now have the very real
potential of developing thriving and robust stem-cell medicine and
scientific research sectors that will bridge, rather than
exacerbate, our moral differences over the importance and meaning of