Nobel prize for ‘ethical’ alternative to embryonic stem cells

The man who discovered induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) has received the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, a researcher from Kyoto University, developed a new process in 2006 that used four genes to reprogram skin cells in mice to behave like embryonic stem cells, which are pluripotent and thus capable of developing into any cell of the human body. In November 2007, Yamanaka and his team were able to create human iPSCs.

Yamanaka and the co-recipient, John B. Gurdon, received the prize owing to their discovery that “mature, specialised cells can be reprogrammed to become immature cells capable of developing into all tissues of the body,” according to a press release from the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet. “By reprogramming human cells, scientists have created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy.”

The discovery means that embryonic stem cell research, which has just begun to undergo human clinical trials in Europe, may become obsolete. Yamanaka certainly had similar intentions while conducting his research. The New York Times reported in 2007 that as an assistant professor of pharmacology conducting embryonic stem cell research eight years ago, Yamanaka looked at one human embryo through a microscope. “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” he said. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.” However, that does not mean he opposes using embryonic stem cells. “Patients’ lives are more important than embryos,” he told the New Scientist in 2007. Yet, “I do want to avoid the use of embryos if possible.”

“It was biological alchemy, like lead into gold,” recalls Wesley J. Smith in a blog entry for National Review Online. “They mocked President Bush for arguing that scientists were creative and ingenious enough to find an ethical way forward (toward) that end which did not involve the destruction of human life.”

There are questions, however, about how ethical the new discovery really is. While it means that embryos will not have to be killed to obtain pluripotent stem cells, some pro-life groups wonder where the genes used to reprogram the skin cells have come from. Children of God for Life reports that the HEK 293 aborted fetal cell line was used to deliver one of the genes during Yamanaka’s reprogramming process, thus morally tainting the supposed ethics of using such cells. “The genes and virus material used to transform the adult cells could have readily been produced by any number of other cell lines available for this purpose, such as HeLa, COS or CHO cells, none of which come from electively aborted fetuses,” wrote Dr. Theresa Deisher in an article for the site. There is also a danger that the therapy could form tumours – just like embryonic stem cell research does – meaning that iPSCs cannot yet be used to actually treat humans.

Nevertheless, Yamanaka shines in comparison to the co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for medecine, John B. Gurdon. Gurdon transplanted a nucleus from a frog’s egg cell to a tadpole intestinal cell and discovered that the cell developed into a clone of the original frog. This led to animal cloning experiments, resulting in the famous Dolly sheep clone.

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