January 10, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Stem Cells: It’s a New Ball Game

A year ago, the ethical battle over human embryonic stem cells was raging.  Now, both Science and Nature have acknowledged that the new induced pluripotent stem cell technology (see 11/20/2007) has opened up a new era that may make embryonic stem cells practically obsolete.
    Martin Pera, writing in Nature1, left open only a slight possibility of a need for embryonic cells.  Most of his praise was for the new technology:

The work of Park and colleagues, together with the related studies, proves beyond doubt that direct reprogramming is an efficient way of generating human pluripotent stem cells from adult cells.  The results raise the hope that, one day, iPS cells might fulfil much of the promise of human embryonic stem cells in research and medicine.  The generation of iPS cells through direct reprogramming avoids the difficult ethical controversies surrounding the use of embryos for deriving stem cells.  The added advantage of direct reprogramming is that it enables patient-specific stem cells to be obtained for studying human disease and for tissue matching in transplantation.  What is more, virtually any laboratory capable of carrying out the required cell-culture techniques can now perform direct reprogramming of adult cells.  So the year 2008 promises to be very exciting for researchers interested in pluripotent stem-cell biology.

Jose Cibelli, in Science,2 asked if therapeutic cloning research is dead.  “The ability to generate pluripotent stem cells directly from skin fibroblasts may render ethical debates over the use of human oocytes to create stem cells irrelevant,” the article summary stated.  The breakthrough research papers by Yu et al and Hanna et al were published in the same December 21 issue.  Cibelli charted the advantages of induced and embryonic stem cells.  Some benefits remain to be determined, and some problems remain to be solved.  He ended with qualified optimism:

Is human therapeutic cloning no longer needed?  The short answer is no, but it is likely a matter of time until all the hypothetical advantages of therapeutic cloning will be implemented with induced pluripotent stem cells.  More importantly, the controversial issues (ethical and technical) specific to human therapeutic cloning may well be left behind along with the procedure itself, a refreshing change for the field, indeed.

This week, PhysOrg reported that the new reprogrammed stem cells taken from human skin, “indistinguishable from stem cells taken from human embryos,” may provide treatments within 10 years.  The breakthrough has created a race: “the new technology is so simple that many laboratories are competing to make further breakthroughs.”  Pluripotent stem cells have the potential of recreating any of the 220 cell types in the human body.  Shinya Yamanaka, leader of one of the teams that achieved the success, said of the competition, “I think it’s very good for patients who are waiting” for new treatments.
    Work on embryonic cells has not ceased, however.  PhysOrg reported on work by Robert Lanza to extract stem cells without killing the embryo.  He is not convinced the induced adult cells will become the magic bullet.  Some ethicists, however, still see ethical problems with his technique, because it “places at risk the health and life of a human embryo for purposes that do not directly benefit the embryo.”
    The article quoted the head of the new California Institute of Regenerative Medicine claiming that the most common stem cell source will be the new, ethically-sound, induced pluripotent cells from adult skin.  A survey last month found widespread support for non-embryonic stem cells, reported Science Daily.

1.  Martin F. Pera, “Stem cells: A new year and a new era,” Nature 451, 135-136 (10 January 2008) | doi:10.1038/451135a.
2.  Jose Cibelli, “Is Therapeutic Cloning Dead?”, Science, 21 December 2007: Vol. 318. no. 5858, pp. 1879-1880, DOI: 10.1126/science.1153229.

It is certainly gratifying to see scientists using their intelligent design to achieve a highly desirable goal without the need for morally reprehensible means.  The degree to which ethical concerns of the culture restrained the unbridled ambitions of scientists seems clear.
    Science is not a free rein to do anything and everything that is possible.  The rhetoric of the past indicated that not only individual researchers, but the leaders of the scientific institutions, were intent on pushing their agenda past the objections of the public (e.g., 10/13/2006, 07/31/2006).  Pro-ES cell scientists routinely tried to characterize the opposition as narrow-minded religious dogma, as if Pig Science could be trusted to be free of ambition (05/09/2007, bullet 3).  Nothing stopped them from spending their own money, but they insisted the public had to pay for it.
    Two years ago, the Hwang scandal exhibited the ugly ambition behind some of the research (02/05/2006).  Without the ethical pressure brought to bear early on against killing embryos for research, another atrocity may have become as routine as abortion is today.  Thank God there is a new pathway through the morass that may satisfy everyone.  This is a technology to watch in 2008.  Keep your eyes open and the pressure on.  Knowledge is power.  Righteousness keeps it under control.

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