Stem cell science becomes stem cell medicine
Nov 26, 2008
Claudia CastilloA Colombian woman has become the world's first
recipient of an organ grown in the laboratory from stem cells. The
windpipe (bronchus), of Claudia Castillo, 30, had collapsed because she
had suffered from tuberculosis. Scientists at the Hospital Clinic of
Barcelona created a new windpipe from her own stem cells and
transplanted it. The operation appears to be a success and Ms Castillo
needs no immune suppressant drugs because the stem cells were her own.
Roger Highfield, editor of the New Scientist, expressed the jubilation
of many scientists: "The science of healing is developing so quickly
that it has become almost a cliché to describe a particular
operation as a 'breakthrough'. Yet there is no doubt that the first
successful transplant of a human windpipe, constructed partly from stem
cells, is an astonishing milestone - one that could indeed mark the
start of a new era in medicine."
With the noisy debate over the relative importance of embryonic versus
adult stem cells hushed as hopes for the former fade, almost none of
the news reports pointed out that only adult stem cells had been used
in this stunning development.
Professor Martin Birchall, a member of the team from the University of
Bristol, said: "What we're seeing today is just the beginning. This is
the first time a tissue-engineered whole organ has been transplanted
into a patient. I reckon in 20 years' time, it will be the commonest
operation surgeons will be doing. I think it will completely transform
the way we think about surgery, health and disease."
The technique, he said, could be applied to other hollow organs, such
as the bowel, bladder and reproductive tract.
What the scientists did was to remove a windpipe from a deceased donor
and scrub away all the soft tissue so that all that remained was a
scaffolding of cartilage. Then they seeded this with stem cells from
bone marrow and the nose. These grew around the scaffolding to form the
Professor Paolo Macchiarini, the surgeon, said: "We are terribly
excited by these results. Just four days after transplantation, the
graft was almost indistinguishable from adjacent, normal bronchi." ~
Scotsman, Nov 19
Life at Four Cells Old
Authors Mount a Philosophical Defense of Human Life in Earliest
By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, APRIL 13, 2008 - Stem cell research using material taken from
embryos continues to be hotly debated. Advocates of using embryos
that at such early stages, the cells cannot be considered a human
However, a recent book by two philosophers argues the contrary.
Robert P. George, who is also a member of the President's Council on
and Christopher Tollefsen, avoid religious-based arguments and lay out
series of scientific and philosophical principles in favor of the human
of the embryo. In "Embryo: A Defense of Human Life" (Doubleday), they
that the status of a human being commences at the moment of conception.
The book starts by recounting the history of a boy named Noah, born in
2007. He was rescued, along with other frozen embryos, from the
that struck New Orleans in 2005. It was Noah's life -- a human life --
was saved, George and Tollefsen point out, the same life that was later
in a womb and was subsequently born.
A human embryo, they continue, is a living member of the human species
at the earliest stage of development. It is not some type of other
organism, or some kind of a clump of cells that later undergoes a
transformation. Barring some kind of tragic accident, a being in the
stage will proceed to the fetal stage and continue to progress in this
The point at issue, according to the authors, is at what stage we can
a single biological system that has started on the process to being a
human being. This decisive moment, they argue, comes with conception.
medical experts believe it happens slightly after, with the formation
the united chromosomes of the sperm and egg. In any case, continue
and Tollefsen, there is widespread agreement among embryologists that
the latest, a new human individual comes into existence once the
structure is formed.
They argue that there are three key points to keep in mind regarding
human status of the embryo.
-- From the start, it is distinct from any cell of the mother or the
-- It is human in its genetic makeup.
-- It is a complete organism, though immature, and unless prevented by
or violence, will develop into the mature stage of a human being.
Consequently, destroying human embryos, even at an early stage, in
to obtain stem cells for research or medical treatment is giving a
to kill a certain class of human beings in order to benefit others.
Not just science
Faced with such a situation, George and Tollefsen reject the position
it should be scientists who alone determine what they do in their
activities. The problem with the embryonic stem cell issue is that the
of technology has run ahead of a discussion about the nature and value
human embryos, the authors contend.
Opposing such research does not place us in a classic sort of science
religion situation, they affirm. Opposing the destruction of human life
its initial stages does not have to rely on religious principles, or on
that such a life has been endowed with a soul, the book adds.
Purely philosophical reason is sufficient to guide us in determining
is ethically licit to do with human embryos. In this sense, defending
rights of an embryo is similar to defending people against unjust
argue George and Tollefsen.
They admit there are differing moral philosophies. One theory to
is that of consequentialism, which leads us to the position that there
some human beings who must be sacrificed for the greater good.
George and Tollefsen found their ethical position on natural law
which leads to the conclusuion that it is morally wrong to damage or
a basic human good. If, therefore, a scientist were to seek a cure for
disease, but the method involved deliberately destroys human life, then
is not licit.
The one basic human right, in fact, that almost all natural law
agree upon is that of an innocent person not to be directly killed or
The capacity of the human being to reason and choose freely sets us
and gives us a dignity higher than other living beings. An assault on
life is, consequently, an assault on human dignity, no matter the
age or stage of development, the authors conclude.
One of the book's chapters deals with the objection that while an
may be human it is, nonetheless, not a person and does not have the
dignity or rights. George and Tollefsen reply that such a view is
as it falls into the error of considering that some human beings are
to others on the basis of accidental characteristics.
In fact, they continue, denying the status of personhood based on a
for mental capacities or other parameters of functionality poses many
Are we to be allowed to kill newborn babies, given that they too are
to carry out basic human functions?
Rather, we should realize that a mere quantitative difference in
is not the correct criterion for determining rights, as it is only a
of degree. The real difference is between human beings and all other
animals, which is a radical difference of kind. Thus, the embryo is a
adult in the same way that infants, children and adolescents are
Embryos are, they insist, already human beings, and are not merely
human. Moreover, the right to life of a human does not vary according
the stage of its development because it is the foundational right for
"It is the right on which all other rights are predicated, and marks
a being is a being of moral standing at all," continue George and
Another fallacious argument is that which maintains that embryos are
worthy of a full moral status because a high percentage of them fail to
in the mother's womb or spontaneously abort. The authors point out that
is a naturalistic fallacy, supposing that what happens in nature must
morally acceptable when caused by human action.
The falsity of this reasoning is also evident, George and Tollefsen
out, when you consider that historically, infant mortality has been
high. In such a situation just because many young babies died does not
it ethically licit for them to be killed to benefit others.
Another line of reasoning used to defend research with embryonic cells
that there are many thousands of frozen embryos who remain unwanted
artificial fertilization treatments, and who will never have a chance
be implanted and grow to maturity. A scientist could use these cells
the good of research.
George and Tollefsen reply, saying that this it is manifestly unfair to
that a person -- in this case the embryo -- sacrifice his life in this
"Human beings have a moral right not to be intentionally killed to
others," they declare.
They also argue that it is an error to condemn hundreds of thousands of
lives to a sort of frozen limbo. Thus the process of creating and
such embryos needs to questioned, state the authors.
We need to turn our attention to their fate, George and Tollesen
not by using embryos as if they were some kind of biological material,
by acknowledging their humanity. These and other persuasive arguments
the book make it valuable reading at a time when science is at danger
running ahead of our ethical reasoning.
Of Cybrids, Hybrids, & Chimeras
Learning from the U.K. battle over human-animal hybrids.
By Father Thomas Berg October 23, 2007 4:00 AM
In September, Britain’s Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority
approved the concept of creating hybrid embryos by merging human cells
animal eggs for research purposes. Essentially a form of cloning, the
requires scientists to fuse a normal human body cell with a non-human
egg — of a cow or a rabbit for instance — stripped of its own nucleus.
fused, factors remaining in the non-human egg would initiate processes
which an embryonic organism would develop. Whether the non-human source
eggs are remotely genetically related (cow eggs) or proximately related
eggs), the resulting product (called by some a “cybrid”) would, in the
opinion of leading experts in mammalian cloning, be essentially human,
save for the
negligible influence of the non-human genetic material (the
found afloat in the enucleated egg.
From such embryos, British researchers want to extract embryonic stem
By creating clones from the cells of patients suffering from incurable
diseases such as ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease), researchers hope to
matching lines of stem cells that carry the disease, and to use them to
therapies. Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the Sheep, believes that
cells derived by the hybrid method cannot be matched by doing similar
in merely animal models. He points out that these cells could also be
for testing drugs, and for perfecting the cloning technique. Using
eggs would allow researchers to by-pass ethical concerns regarding the
use of human eggs. And under current law in the U.K., the hybrid
be destroyed after 14 days.
As might be expected, the idea of creating human-animal hybrids
repugnance in the general public. In response, the HFEA conducted a
month long “consultation,” a mix of polling, town hall style meetings,
debates. This was coupled with months of heavy lobbying by proponents
the technique who claimed at one point that a ban on hybrid cloning
cost patients’ lives.” According to the HFEA report, once the public
presented with “factual information” most of the respondents “became
at ease with the idea.”
The U.K. human hybrid debate should supply us with several insights
how to revitalize our own intractable national debate over ethical stem
research. Here are just a few.
Let’s be honest about the ethical limitations of the “yuck factor.”
The first thing the HFEA had to deal with was the generalized public
at the idea of crossing human DNA with animal eggs. While the yuck
is at times a useful rule of thumb in moral matters and deserves our
attention, one must admit that it fails to constitute a sufficient
for reasonable ethical judgments. Centuries ago, the novel prospect of
open and studying human cadavers was met with repugnance and deep moral
in more recent times, the idea of organ donation met with similar
in some quarters. Both were eventually accepted. How many long-accepted
interventions still cause repugnance? And recent biomedical advances
as the use of porcine heart valves in cardiac patients, the growing of
livers in laboratory animals for study as disease models, or the fusing
non-reproductive cells from human and non-human tissues to study
behavior — all forms of human-animal chimera formation — while perhaps
some emotional discomfort are surely morally licit.
On the other hand, if arguably a majority of Americans rejects outright
kinds of human-animal hybrid formation, it is for reasons that go well
emotional repugnance. The cross-fertilization of human and non-human
and sperm, (i.e., the creation of “humanzees”); the grafting of
animal stem cells into a human embryo or fetus or vice versa; or
about the gestation of a human fetus within a non-human animal womb —
such proposals normally provoke disgust; but if they garner our moral
surely it is out of respect for human dignity and not simply because
“yuck” factor has collectively kicked in.
Let’s debate issues of substance free of scientific disingenuousness.
Why, we should ask, do more than a few researchers hold out so
little hope of success for the experiments currently under
by the HFEA — to use rabbit or cow eggs to clone human cells? Sir John
a pioneer of cloning at Cambridge University, fears these experiments
yield “a lot of genetic abnormality that won't lead to good quality
cells". Neville Cobbe, a geneticist and cell biologist at the
of Edinburgh, writing in the journal Zygon this month, questions the
of modeling these diseases — many of which are late on-set conditions —
embryos when we have only fleeting knowledge of the genes and proteins
cause those diseases. These problems would be further exacerbated by
bovine or murine eggs so distantly related to the human genome. Another
expert on mammalian cloning, Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and
University, agrees that “interspecies cloning only works with very
species.” He describes as “very slim” the chances that bovine eggs
reprogram human cells into embryonic stem cells, and points out that
labs have tried these experiments for almost a decade with no success.
This suggests that these scientific proposals are mere test cases to
the social acceptability of controversial science. But rather than
these questions openly, some scientists prefer to do an end-run around
deliberation and force the issue in the laboratory.
The real issue here is the social acceptability of allowing science to
heretofore inviolable moral boundaries. The British human-animal hybrid
is a poor proxy for robust moral discussion of the two issues it
the moral licitness of human cloning for research purposes, and the
issue of mingling human and non-human cells in a reproductive manner.
In the U.S., we would do well to continue this debate in earnest,
it in the public square where it belongs, while avoiding the pitfalls
investing time, energy and public resources in junk science as a
for substantive public moral discourse. While respecting contrary
I personally believe that as a nation we should reject any form of
hybrid formation on the same grounds for which I and millions of
reject human cloning: human embryos have a privileged moral status and
not be treated as raw material for medical research. There is also a
reasonable resistance to creating a market for human eggs and the
of women to obtain the eggs.
Let’s invest in research that shows greatest potential for near-term
and clinical benefits while bridging the moral divide.
If cures and therapies are really the name of the game, let’s invest in
that is scientifically promising while purporting to avoid the
charged issue of destroying human embryos, such as: the reprogramming
ordinary somatic (body) cells, the procurement of embryonic stem cells
already dead embryos, ways of altering the cloning process so as to
the production of human embryos altogether (“altered nuclear
the derivation of stem cells from umbilical cord blood, and the use of
patient’s own adult stem cells.
I myself believe that embryo-destructive research cannot be morally
even if it were to become the source of cures for dreaded diseases.
once upon a time, the ideas of studying human cadavers, and donating
were deemed an affront to human dignity. And with time this moral
was judged as groundless. Some today believe opposition to using human
for research is another cultural taboo which will also pass with time.
disagree. Neither the carving of cadavers nor the transfer of viable
requires a willingness to kill a living human individual. Embryo
research does just that. It takes the life of a human individual in his
her earliest stage of development. Biomedical science fails humanity
it deliberately destroys human life in the pursuit of trying to cure it.
— Rev. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute
Ethics and the Human Person, and member of the ethics committee of New
Empire State Stem Cell Board.
Is therapeutic cloning obsolete?
After years of urging the public and governments to support the
of embryos, scientists may have led them up a blind alley.
Michael Cook | Saturday, 16 June 2007
Next week the international grandees of therapeutic cloning gather in
Australia, the sun-soaked gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, for their
conference. They have serious strategic issues to deal with along with
scientific papers and posters: persuading governments to open their
ensuring that the Bush Administrations restrictions on their work are
allaying the public's qualms about creating embryos solely for research.
But one issue will dominate: ten years after Dolly the sheep was
is therapeutic cloning ready to be mothballed?
Only a few days ago an article in the leading journal Nature brought
news. (1) A Japanese team at Kyoto University has discovered how to
skin cells so that they "dedifferentiate" into the equivalent of an
stem cell. From this they can be morphed, theoretically, into any cell
the body, a property called pluripotency. It could be the Holy Grail of
cell science: a technique which is both feasible and ethical.
"Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I've never worked with
says Shinya Yamanaka. (2) The first instalment of his research appeared
year ago -- and was greeted with polite scepticism by his colleagues.
the time they were mesmerised by dreams of cloning embryos and
them for their stem cells.
The previous head of the International Society for Stem Cell Research,
S. B. Goldstein, had even dismissed reprogramming as quixotic. "If
are scientists who morally oppose [embryonic] stem cell research and
to devote their energies to uncovering alternatives, that’s fine," said
"But in no way, shape, or form should we ask the scientific community
patient community to wait to see if these new alternatives will work."
Now, however, ten years after Dolly, not one scientist anywhere using a
human embryo has created a stem cell line. Not one. And a Japanese Don
This is mainstream research, not an eccentric theory from wild-eyed
Yamanaka's work has been confirmed by two other teams affiliated with
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the
of California, Los Angeles -- both of them headed by ardent supporters
embryonic stem cell research.
They say that the reprogrammed cells meet all the tests of pluripotent
-- they form colonies, propagate continuously and form cancerous
called teratomas, as well as producing chimaeras. "Its unbelievable,
amazing," says Hans Schöler, a German stem cell expert. "For me,
like Dolly. It's that type of an accomplishment." (4)
What Yamanaka did was to take a mouse skin cell and introduce into it
proteins which trigger the expression of other genes to make it
"It's easy. There's no trick, no magic," he says. Naturally, it's easy
for experts at the moment. There are some worrying issues to contend
one of the proteins seems to contribute to cancers in 20% of the mice.
since cancers are the Number One problem with embryonic stem cells as
it is not surprising that stem cells induced to an embryonic state
this embryonic flaw.
Harvard researcher Chad Cowan says that it will change the field: "The
amazing thing about these papers is you now take this whole idea of
out of the hands of cloning specialists and put it into the hands of
who can do molecular and cell biology." (5)
Now the race is on to apply the technique to human cells. "We are
very hard -- day and night," says Yamanaka.
Will this disruptive technology open up ethical avenues in the
field of stem cell research which do not involve turning women into
hens for their eggs and destroying embryos?
At the moment, the stem cell grandees, like all establishment figures,
no plans to change their tune. One of the stars of Cairns, MIT's
Jaenisch, told Nature that therapeutic cloning remains "absolutely
And executives from embryonic stem cell companies were not optimistic
the new technique either. Because it involves tinkering with the
it could be dangerous, warned Thomas B. Okarma, of Geron, the leading
company in the field. Getting approval from regulatory authorities
therefore become far more complicated. (6) What else could he say? No
manufacturers of video tapes muttered about serious flaws in DVDs when
first appeared on the market.
With an ethical solution looking quite plausible, the pressure will be
scientists to justify embryonic stem cell research. Two years ago, Dr
D. Rowley, an Australian working in the US who is an implacable foe of
Bush Administration's policy, dismissed ethical solutions. "We have
limited research dollars, and to use them to study these alternatives
wrong," she declared. "That money should be available for actual
(7) But now stem cells derived from embryos are starting to look like
Don't expect supporters of embryonic stem cell research to respond
not in the short term, at least. The other day, Democratic Caucus
Rahm Emanuel told the US House of Representatives as he voted to
the Bush policy: "It is ironic that every time we vote on this
all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically
'You don't have to do [embryonic] stem cell research.' " (8)
Connect the dots, Mr Emanuel. Maybe you don't have to.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
(1) "Simple switch turns cells embryonic". NewsNature. 7 June 2007.
(2) "Simple switch turns cells embryonic". NewsNature. 7 June 2007.
(3) "Scenarios for stem cell creation debated". JAMA. 22/29 June 2005.
(4) "Simple switch turns cells embryonic". NewsNature. 7 June 2007.
(5) "Teams Reprogram Differentiated Cells -- Without Eggs." Science. 8
(6) "A Long, Uncertain Path for New Cell Technique." New York Times, 7
(7) "Scenarios for stem cell creation debated". JAMA. 22/29 June 2005.
(8) "Darn Cells. Dividing Yet Again!" Washington Post. 10 June
Real Stem-Cell News
New developments point toward a consensus solution and away from the
By Yuval Levin June 6, 2007
National Review Online
Publication Date: June 6, 2007
The politics of stem cells are stuck in a repeating loop. This week,
House of Representatives will again take up a bill to overturn
Bush's embryonic-stem-cell-funding policy, and to use taxpayer dollars
encourage the destruction of human embryos for research. The Congress
passed such a bill last year, and the president vetoed it. In fact, the
already passed that bill again just this January, the Senate passed a
altered version in April, and now the House is passing that Senate
to send it to the president. The replay will continue next week, too,
President Bush again vetoes the bill, and the Congress once more fails
come up with the votes to override the veto.
And yet on the ground stem-cell science is hardly in a state of
vu. While opponents of the Bush policy again and again trot out their
arguments in Washington, scientific developments continue to point in a
direction -- away from the false opposition of science and ethics and
a potential consensus solution.
That solution, if it pans out, would involve the production of cells
the characteristics and abilities of embryonic stem cells, but without
the destruction of embryos. The President's Council on Bioethics
a few possible ways of doing this in a brief paper two years ago, and
that time just about all the possibilities they examined have seen some
progress. The most appealing of the techniques they looked at involves
chemically reprogramming adult cells to function like embryonic stem
cells -- essentially
producing the kind of cells researchers want but without the need for
In its 2005 report, the bioethics council considered such "somatic cell
the most ethically attractive but least scientifically feasible of the
they examined. But they were wrong on the latter point. Within months
their report, studies began to emerge showing real progress toward such
A team at Harvard took one key step in August of 2005, another in Japan
an impressive advance last summer, and word has trickled out from
several labs of similar efforts underway.
Today, that trickle has turned into a serious flow. The coming week's
of the journal Nature, made available online this morning, contains
extensive reports of surprisingly significant advances toward
The key publication comes from a team at MIT led by the prominent
scientist Rudolph Jaenisch. Working in mouse cells, they took the
of the 2006 Japanese effort, corrected some key flaws, introduced
improvements, and produced cells that appeared to pass all the critical
of so-called "pluripotency" -- the ability to be transformed into a
variety of cell types, which scientists so value about embryonic stem
The team states its startling conclusion in the usual mild-mannered
deadpan: "Our results show that the biological potency and epigenetic
of in-vitro-reprogrammed induced pluripotent cells are
from those of embryonic stem cells." They assert with confidence that
findings "establish that somatic cells can be reprogrammed to a
state that is similar, if not identical, to that of normal embryonic
cells." In other words a regular adult cell, like one of your skin
can be turned into the equivalent or near-equivalent of an embryonic
cell, and without the need for any embryos. These are truly astonishing
unimaginable just a few years ago.
This is just one study, to be sure. But it is one of several published
this week, and one of a growing number over the past two years that
to establish more firmly the principle that embryo-destruction may
not be necessary for the benefits that scientists have found in
stem cells. The Jaenisch paper, and the others published this week,
likely to become lasting landmarks on the path toward ethically
But the Democrats in Congress have barely noticed any of this. The
iteration of their stem-cell funding bill does include some language
support to the development of these alternatives, but it comes joined
language that would use taxpayer dollars to encourage embryo
Even as they gesture toward the possibility of common ground, they push
away and turn their backs. Indeed, today, in advance of tomorrow's
funding vote, the Democratic leadership reportedly plans a vote on a
to protect the practice of producing human embryos by cloning and then
them for research (and in the usual Orwellian fashion the bill presents
as a ban on human cloning).
Now more than ever, the premise behind President Bush's stem-cell
policy -- that science and ethics can be championed together, rather
set in opposition to each other -- seems supported by the latest
science. And now more than ever, the course chosen by the leaders of
seems like pure political cynicism.
-- Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and
editor of The New Atlantis magazine.
Father Thomas Berg: Stem Cell research
iPSCs: What the Scientists are Saying November 27, 2007
Allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts by Marten de Vos
The News last week that separate teams of scientists had managed to
human skin cells to be the virtual functional equivalent of human
stem cells, sent a shock wave through the scientific world. The
cells-called induced pluripotent state cells (iPSCs)-are produced
damaging, destroying or even involving human embryos.
After the Japanese team led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka reported further
in reprogramming mouse skin cells last June, no one expected that only
months later he would already be reporting on successes with human
But what has been perhaps most surprising, not to say amazing, is
stem cells scientists themselves-many, ardent advocates of embryonic
cell research-have been saying about this new alternative to
stem cell research.
Ian Wilmut and Dolly the Sheep
First there was Dr. Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly the sheep, who,
the successes that were coming in reprogramming (which renders the
of embryos for their stem cells obsolete) announced two weeks ago that
was abandoning cloning. "Reprogramming," he was reported to have said
the London Telegraph, "is the future of stem cell research" possessing
it does "so much more potential" than standard ESC research.
Allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts by Marten de Vos
Dr. Yamanaka affirmed that "Any scientist with basic technology in
and cell biology can do reprogramming." Dr. Doug Melton, a
advocate of ESC research and of human "therapeutic" cloning affirmed in
New York Times that "anyone who is going to suggest that
is just a side show and that it won't work is wrong." And Alta
a UW-Madison professor of law and bioethics, and popular secular voice
the ethics of stem cell research said the discovery "could be a
James ThomsonThen, of course, to top these and many other declarations,
was an interview last Wednesday in the New York Timeswith Dr. James
of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who lead the other team that
successful reprogramming and who is himself the first scientist to
human embryonic stem cells, the feat that initiated the great stem cell
in the U.S. "Now with the new technique, which involves adding
four genes to ordinary adult skin cells," affirmed Thomson, "it will
be long...before the stem cell wars are a distant memory." "A decade
from now," he said, "this will be just a funny historical footnote."
Affirmations like these have led many of us to ponder whether or not we
indeed find ourselves-happily-at the end of the stem cell wars. Only
will tell. Voices to the contrary have certainly not been
A chorus of voices have also been insisting that all avenues of
need to go forward, including embryo-destructive research. The
of such claims, however, has been dealt a serious blow. To the general
the concept of ethically uncontroversial research which now holds out
the same promise as human ESC research and can be used immediately in
is not a difficult sell. As Institute senior Markus GrompeMaureen
Maureen Condic and Markus Grompe affirmed in a TheWall Street Journal
iPSCs are clearly superior to embryo-derived ESCs. Pluripotent stem
can be used to study "developmental biology in a dish." They enable
to observe how human organs and tissues form. The insights garnered
such studies are likely to lead to the development of new drugs and
which can benefit human health.
Direct reprogramming techniques make it possible to generate
cells from specific individuals, including those with particular
It will be possible to make iPSCs from children with Fanconi's anemia,
devastating genetic disease, and to study the effects of candidate
on the formation of human blood. These kinds of experiments are now
possible and likely will be the first practical application of iPSCs.
Not a hard sell to a nation that is by and large exhausted-or simply
up-with the controversy surrounding the use of embryos for research.
to all this the technical ease and cost-effectiveness of somatic cell
and one cannot help but imagine a noclick heret-so-distant future in
the sad spectacle of embryo-destructive research has become for the
part-as Dr. Thomson says-a footnote in the history of science. Let's
NOTE: More information about iPSCs, including background, papers and
is available at our website: www.westchesterinstitute.net.
THE FUTURE IS NOW: Stem Cell Debate Changes
by Father Thomas Berg, LC
Father Thomas Berg - Director
It's called 'reprogramming'.
Another technical term for it is 'somatic cell dedifferentiation.' Just
those terms into your vocabulary because they'll be around for the
future. As reported in two scientific papers published today,
is now the future of stem cell research and renders ethically
therapeutic cloning obsolete.
Ever since the debate of embryo-destructive stem cell research
in earnest in 1998 when researchers at the University of Wisconsin
isolated human embryonic stem cells, we've known that the best overall
to the ethical impasse would be a solution that both allows the search
stem-cell related cures to go foreword, while doing so without harming
destroying embryonic human life in the process.
We now have that solution.
Date: April 12, 2007
In the search for scientifically and ethically acceptable alternatives
embryo-destructive stem cell research, altered nuclear transfer (ANT)
particularly close analysis, due both to its complexity, and to its
as a scientifically acceptable substitute source of embryonic-like stem
and substitute platform for the kinds of research otherwise afforded by
living human embryos.
ANT is the conceptual proposal advocated by Dr. William Hurlbut of
University and member of the President's Council on Bioethics. In ANT,
normal adult body cell is genetically modified. In its nucleus, genes
for normal embryo formation are drastically altered. This cell is then
in an egg with its nucleus removed—the same technical procedure used in
Theoretically, however, the resultant product of the procedure would
be an embryo, but a disordered biological artifact, capable of yielding
stem cells, but otherwise more akin to very unusual tumors called
which can, although rarely, form spontaneously for example in female
In October, 2005, the journal Nature reported that MIT researchers
Meissner and Rudolf Jaenisch had, for the first time, used ANT in
mice to derive a line of “fully competent” mouse embryonic stem cells.
use of the procedure produced what were arguably not mouse embryos, but
disorganized masses of cells that appeared to lack the organization
to be considered genuine mouse embryos. The Meissner/Jaenisch research
proof of principle that ANT works scientifically—at least in mice.
Since December of 2004, I have been working extensively with a group of
and moral theologians in the on-going moral evaluation of ANT,
with a Scholars Forum dedicated to this question in April of 2005. The
point of moral concern (because of its conceptual proximity to human
is whether it can be shown with moral certainty that this procedure
not give rise to a human embryo if done with human cells. Of course,
if that could be shown, we would require further assurances that its
application could be pursued in a manner that would not involve the use
human eggs (thus avoiding the further ethical pitfall of creating yet
another venue for the potential exploitation of women for their eggs in
of scientific research).
Out of that April 2005 gathering emerged a joint statement signed by
than 30 leading moral philosophers and theologians. We wrote at the
Our proposal is for initial research using only nonhuman animal
If, but only if, such research establishes beyond a reasonable doubt
oocyte assisted reprogramming [ANT] can reliably be used to produce
stem cells without creating embryos, would we support research on human
Our work on this issue has generated both hope and controversy—a good
of which was chronicled in an article in the January 2006 issue of
We will rightly remain cautious on ANT until further research on
(particularly on primates) can give us greater assurance that the
of ANT would not be an embryo—that, of course, remains the crucial
question. Only further animal research, coupled with continued
and theological reflection, could potentially afford us a reasonable
of moral certainty that ANT pursued with human cells would not render a
The value of ANT, if it can be shown to be ethically acceptable, lies
what it offers science: (1) a reliable source of stem cells
equivalent to normal human embryonic stem cells); (2) a reliable method
generating patient-matched cells for growing replacement tissues (in
words, an acceptable substitute for so-called ‘therapeutic cloning');
(3) a workable platform (the ANT product) for pursuing other kinds of
not immediately related to the search for cures.
Over the past two years, I have seen growing indications that not a few
preferring to avoid the moral controversies entailed by
research, would be satisfied with just such an alternative.
So, here at the Institute, our moral analysis of ANT is on-going. The
of a future in which the human embryo constitutes the research platform
choice for the biotech industry compels us to consider ANT and all the
alternatives with principled and rigorous moral analysis. We sustain
hope that our on-going analysis of these alternatives, coupled with
respect for human life, will lead us to clear determinations about
This post is part of short series of posts I am
to explore in greater detail a couple of these alternatives. I've
written about one of these, namely, direct cell reprogramming. Today I
to explore the concept of removing single cells from “naturally dead”
obtained from in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics.
This method was first proposed by Drs. Donald Landry and Howard Zucker
of Columbia University ) in a paper in the Journal of Clinical
Their proposal rests on the scientific possibility of deriving new
of human embryonic stem cells from just a few cells extracted from
“dead” embryos. The proposal also hinges on the close association of
concept of removing cells from “naturally dead” embryonic human beings,
the concept of organ donation from deceased, fully developed human
But how would we determine whether left-over IVF embryos have, in fact,
and how would we distinguish them from those embryos that are simply
or already in a process of dying? The Landry/Zucker proposal formulates
notion of embryonic (natural) death drawing on the criteria for
death of a developed human. Fully developed human beings are normally
dead when they have irreversibly lost the capacity for integrated
body function. The commonly accepted indicator of this loss is “brain
or the complete cessation of all spontaneous brain activity. And while
death may come about (marking the consequent loss of a capacity for
integrated body function), millions of cells and any number of whole
organs remain alive.
Landry and Zucker's proposal is that an embryo is naturally dead when
embryo has irreversibly lost the capacity for integrated cell division,
if some of the individual cells are alive.
Dr. Landry spoke to Senate staff last week as part of a briefing
by the Westechester Institute. He noted in his presentation that
research has shown that no embryo that has been arrested (ceased cell
for more than 48 hours ever recovered. Concluding that such arrest is
, Landry posited that this marks the threshold for meeting the criteria
natural embryonic death: irreversible loss of integrated organic
indicated by a 48-hour period of cessation of cell division.
Notwithstanding some ethical concerns that still require further
along with many other Catholic ethicists I am hopeful that those
can be allayed, and that the Landry/Zucker proposal will quickly move
the mainstream as an ethically and scientifically viable alternative to
Embryo-friendly Stem Cell Research
Date: April 02, 2007
Upon their return after Easter recess, United States Senators are
to take up debate on two stem cell bills. They've been through this
exercise before—last July, to be precise. One bill, S.5 , which already
the House in January, proposes to broaden federal funding for embryonic
cell (ESC) research. It is identical to the legislation passed in House
Senate last July, championed in the House by representatives Mike
(R-Del) and Diane DeGette (D-Colorado), and in the Senate by Arlen
(R- Penn), and which became the object of President Bush's first-ever
If approved in the Senate, the rehashed legislation is destined for yet
another presidential veto, without—it would seem—enough votes (67 would
for the Senate to override the veto.
Of interest here, however, is a second bill the Senate will debate.
, sponsored by Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Norm Coleman (R-Minn.),
to direct federal funding to research on alternative sources of
stem cells, alternatives that do not involve the creation, damaging or
of human embryos (something necessarily involved in standard embryonic
cell research.) A very similar bill passed the Senate unanimously last
but was stalled in the House .
I want to take advantage of this development to dedicate a brief series
posts on my blog to explore several issues related to these alternative
First of all, as Dr. Robert George and I asserted in The Wall Street
two weeks ago, it is increasingly clear that ethically and
acceptable alternatives to embryo-destructive research may well be
reach. These alternatives would appear to hold out the promise of
stem cells with properties equivalent to, or nearly equivalent to,
embryonic cells, but without involving the use (and destruction) of
human embryos as
a means to an end.
In recent posts I have already explored one such alternative, direct
reprogramming. In future posts, I want to explore two others that have
significant headway in the past two years, but which also still require
But prior to that, I want to return to a key presupposition of our
of alternatives. The pursuit of scientifically acceptable alternatives
ESC research presupposes that the whole ESC research project is
legitimate. It presupposes that ESC research can one day proffer
scientific knowledge and even lead to therapeutic applications in a way
adult stem cell research cannot.
My experience over the past five years working closely with both
and secular scientists and experts in the field of stem cell biology
me that this presupposition is correct. Here's why.
Adult stem cell research has proffered hundreds of positive and
clinical trials on human subjects (something embryonic stem cell
is years from commencing). In fact, there are over 1200 human trials
cells derived from ASCs currently underway around the globe. That is
Notwithstanding those inroads, however, ASC research is still at a very
stage. Most treatments derived so far from ASC research apply to
diseases. A broader application of ASC-derived therapies is also likely
years away. Will ESC research come up with cures that cannot be found
cells derived from ASCs? That remains within the realm of possibility.
More importantly, however, as Dr. George and I were at pains to state
the WSJ piece, the search for cures is only one motive behind ESC
and it is clearly not the only motive:
Most scientists acknowledge that ESCs will not provide therapies for
years, if ever. Their therapeutic potential is, at best, speculative.
cannot be used now, even in clinical trials, because of their tendency
produce tumors. So it comes as no surprise that many scientists now
that their primary interest in pursuing ESC research lies not in the
for direct cell transplant therapies, but in the desire to enhance
scientific knowledge of such things as cell signaling, tissue growth
early human development.
We must remember that we are now entering the era of developmental
In that realm, biologists want to do basic scientific research on human
and the cells that compose them at very early stages so as to harness
science of cell differentiation—the science of how stem cells generate
specialized tissues. It may be true that precisely from such knowledge
can arise potential therapeutic applications, but such scientific
is of value regardless of whether there are ever cures or not. For many
these researchers, the whole project of seeking therapeutic advances
human adult stem cells, noble enough in itself, is largely a side show,
little or no impact on their endeavors.
Again, we are talking about a kind of scientific knowledge that the
of ASCs cannot deliver. To get what they are looking for, scientists
human embryonic stem cells or their functional equivalent. Human adult
cells will simply not fit the bill. In this sense, adult stem cell
will never assuage the scientific interest in human embryos or their
Hence it is incumbent upon us, now more than ever, to seek out
acceptable alternatives that can give scientists what they want, but
avoid the destruction of embryonic human life. And these I hope to
with you in up-coming posts.
Direct Cell Reprogramming: Hitting Rewind II
Date: March 26, 2007
A couple weeks ago I was talking about one of the most promising
sources of human “pluripotent” stem cells called direct cell
It holds out the possibility of producing embryonic-like stem cells,
without destroying, harming, or even involving human embryos in the
Reprogramming (also called de-differentiation) proposes to take adult
from the human body and send each cell's nucleus back to a pluripotent
meaning that each of these cells would then be capable of producing any
type in the human body—virtually equivalent in versatility to human
Direct cell reprogramming offers the possibility of turning a normal
body cell into a cell with the properties of an embryonic stem cell,
without involving human embryos in the process.
Furthermore, these stem cells would be genetically matched to the
who donated the body cells. They could then be used to grow tissues for
use in tissue replacement therapies (everything from regeneration of
heart tissue to Parkinson's to spinal chord injury). A perfect genetic
these tissues would not be rejected by the donor's immune system. Most
there would be no embryo created, destroyed, damaged or used in any way
any point in the process.
As I mentioned in the previous blog on this topic, in August 2006, the
Cell published research by a Japanese team of researchers lead by
Yamanaka. In that research, Yamanaka reported successes in
mouse cells by altering just four genetic factors in those cells. In so
the team was able to demonstrate that the new cells had
I recently asked Westchester Institute senior fellow Dr. Markus Grompe
comment on the significance of Yamanaka's work and whether anyone has
replicated it? Here's what Markus had to say:
Nobody has yet published a replication of this work, although I have
yet heard anyone cast serious doubt on it either. Yamanaka is making
of his protocols and reagents available. The work is highly
because it suggests that pluripotent cells can be made from adult cells
using oocytes, embryonic stem cells or any other fetal/embryonic
The method involves direct genetic manipulation of the adult cells with
goal of reprogramming its epigenetic state. It is also significant,
it implies that tissue-matched pluripotent cells can be generated for
Markus further confirmed that perhaps as many as 50 labs around the
and upwards of 200 stem cell researchers, are currently pursuing cell
He also confirmed that, if successful, cell reprogramming holds out the
promise as so called “therapeutic cloning”, meaning that the end
genetically matched tissue—would be similar if not identical to what
scientists would hope to achieve through cloning. When I asked him how
long it would
likely take before we see published research on successful attempts to
this with human cells, he prognosticated 2008 or 2009 at the latest—but
quick to add: “Success is in the eye of the beholder, however.”
Bioethicists Praise Stem Cell Breakthrough
Say Heart Disease Treatment Is Promising and Moral
LONDON, APRIL 5, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Catholic bioethicists welcomed a
breakthrough in the treatment of heart disease using adult stem cells
from bone marrow.
Researches from a London-area hospital, led by Sir Magdi Yacoub, have
part of a human heart from adult stem cells offering hope for millions
cardiac patients. The new tissue could be used in place of artificial
currently used in heart disease treatment.
The breakthrough treatment is welcomed by a statement released by the
and Irish bishops' Joint Bioethics Committee, an ad hoc committee
the two episcopal conferences.
Father Paul Murray, secretary of the committee, said: "Sir Magdi and
team generated the heart tissue from stem cells found in bone marrow.
technique is ethical because the stem cells were taken from the
own bone marrow rather than from an embryo in the first few days of
BBC News reported on Monday one of the medical advantages of the new
"In theory, if the valve was grown from the patient's own cells there
also be no need to take drugs to stop the body rejecting it."
Father Murray asserted: "This development vindicates the consistently
position of the Church, of Catholic ethicists and many other experts in
field who have always maintained that the greatest potential for actual
lay with adult rather than embryonic stem cells.
"Now that we have concrete results using adult stem cells and a time
for their practical use in restoring health, let us leave behind once
for all the fruitless and destructive research on embryonic stem cells
is still years away from this exciting point."
Doubts raised over adult stem cell research
Enquiries by a British scientific magazine have raised questions about
2002 finding that adult stem cells may be as useful as embryonic ones
the study author and Leuven Catholic university employee has denied
the flaws affected her conclusions.
Researcher Catherine Verfaillie, then at the University of Minnesota
concluded that adult stem cells taken from the bone marrow of mice
grow into an array of biological tissues, including brain, heart, lung
liver, The Age reports.
Opponents of stem cell research seized on the 2002 findings as evidence
stem cell science could move forward without destroying embryos.
But Verfaillie has acknowledged flaws in parts of the study after
from the British magazine New Scientist, which first publicised the
A panel of experts commissioned by Minnesota university concluded that
process used to identify tissue derived from the adult stem cells was
flawed, and that the interpretations based on these data, expressed in
manuscript, are potentially incorrect," according to a portion of the
findings released by the university.
The panel concluded that it was not clear whether the flaws mean
conclusions were wrong. It also determined that the flaws were
Tim Mulcahy, vice president of research at the university, said it
be up to the scientific community to decide whether Verfaillie's study
Other researchers have been unable to duplicate Verfaillie's results
the 2002 publications, increasing their skepticism about her claims.
that may only be an indication of how difficult the cells are to work
said Amy Wagers, a Harvard University stem cell researcher who was not
in the investigation.
Verfaillie, who is currently employed at the Catholic University of
in Belgium, told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis in a story published
Friday that the problem was "an honest mistake" that did not affect the
conclusions about the potential of adult stem cells.
Her research was scrutinised after a writer for New Scientist noticed
some data from the original 2002 article in the journal Nature
data in a second paper by Verfaillie around the same time in a
journal, even though they supposedly referred to different cells.
Verfaillie told the Star Tribune that the duplication was an oversight
said she notified the University of Minnesota, which convened the panel
take a closer look at the research.
Dr Diane Krause of Yale University, who, like Verfaillie, has studied
bone marrow as an alternative to embryonic stem cells, said she
Verfaillie's research will hold up, despite being hard to repeat.
"When it comes to Catherine, she's impeccable. She's one of the most
scientists I know," Krause said.
An Unreal Debate: Stem-cell ideologues vs.
facts by Yuval Levin
Posted: Wednesday, January 10, 2007
ARTICLE: National Review Online Publication Date:
This week offers a perfect snapshot of the sorry state of the
debate. On Monday, the newspapers were full of headlines about a new
paper showing that stem cells derived from amniotic fluid appear to
many of the same capabilities as embryonic stem cells, but without the
pitfalls of embryo destruction. But on Thursday, the House of
Representatives plans to take up once again a bill that would overturn
President Bush’s stem-cell-research-funding
policy, and have the government use taxpayer money to encourage the
of embryos for their cells.
That disconnect mirrors the larger detachment of the political push for
funding from the actual facts on the ground. Again and again, advocates
relaxing the ethical standards on funding make assertions and arguments
no basis in fact. Again and again they refuse to acknowledge the
evidence that genuine alternatives to embryo-destructive research may
The false claims are familiar by now. We continue to hear there is a
on federal funding of embryonic-stem-cell research. But in fact, the
administration was the first to fund the research, and has devoted well
$100 million to it since 2001, though only in ways that do not
the further destruction of embryos.
We continue to hear that 100 million Americans are sick and could be
by stem-cell research, but it is hard to imagine what that claim might
based on. In March of last year, Rep. Mark Souder (R., Ind.) had the
exchange in writing with Dr. James Battey, director of the NIH Stem
Souder: A common figure tossed around regarding the
of embryonic stem cell research is that it can provide cures for 100
people. Is there any scientific evidence to actually support that claim?
Battey: It is unclear where this statistic came
Human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is a relatively new field of
having been first reported by James Thomson at the University of
in 1998. More basic research needs to be conducted in the laboratory
the full potential for treating diseases is clear.
No one has since come forward to justify the figure, yet the stem-cell
including members of Congress, continue to use it.
We continue to hear that the stem-cell lines eligible for funding under
Bush policy are contaminated by exposure to animal cells, and therefore
for any future therapeutic applications. But the FDA has plainly said
past exposure to animal products need not make a cell line ineligible
future use, and in any case a series of papers in the past year (most
this one by stem-cell pioneer James Thomson) has shown animal materials
be removed from the existing lines. The most recent global survey of
work also shows that the Bush-approved lines continue to be used in a
of embryonic-stem-cell projects worldwide — so researchers hardly
consider them useless.
We continue to hear that the Bush-approved lines lack genetic
or are not matched to patients with specific diseases. But the bill
the House this week would not address either point, since it would only
available more lines of cells derived from embryos created for in vitro
To match cell lines to patients using existing techniques, researchers
have to employ human cloning; and to derive a line with a genetic
not commonly represented by IVF patients, they would have to create
embryos specifically to destroy them for research. Advocates of
research will likely move to endorse these radical steps next, but for
moment they claim they do not support the creation of embryos
for research, and in any case their bill would not fund it.
We continue to hear that American scientists are falling behind in
research because federal support is lacking. But the latest numbers
demonstrate a large and stable American lead in the field. No other
even comes close to matching the output of American embryonic-stem-cell
We continue to hear that the American public passionately supports
research and demands the loosening of the ethical boundaries imposed by
Bush. But actual surveys of public opinion suggest views are divided
not firmly held.
Strangely, though, for all this talk, the opponents of President Bush’s
policy have not had much to say about the real news in the field over
past two years. That news has been almost exclusively about the
possibility of developing cells with the abilities of those derived
embryos, but without the need to harm human embryos.
A number of possible avenues have presented themselves. One would
reprogramming adult cells to function like embryonic stem cells,
by fusing them with existing stem-cell lines or by injecting them with
right combination of chemical factors. Another study has shown that
“pluripotent” cells could be derived from testes. And yet other
have begun to find cells with such capabilities in the placenta
after birth, in human cord blood, and, as we saw earlier this week,
in amniotic fluid. Numerous labs around the world are now working to
these techniques further, and to pursue more of them.
What we’re seeing is not exactly a search for one particular magic
to end the stem-cell debate. Rather, these studies show that the
to differentiate into a great many different cell types may not be
to embryonic stem cells or any other one particular type of cell, and
the debate we have had now for the better part of a decade may have
based on a faulty premise to begin with.
All of this suggests the divisive fight over embryonic-stem-cell
might just be amenable to a consensus solution: a way to get the type
cells the scientists seek while avoiding any harm to nascent human life.
But advocates of looser funding rules will not take “yes” for an
Rather than jump at the chance to promote a common-ground way forward
stem cells, they have chosen to ignore the emerging alternatives, and
that embryo-destructive research must be funded.
Last year, when the Congress passed the very same bill the House will
this week, several members of both houses proposed an additional bill
would have encouraged research into new ethical methods of deriving
cells. The Senate passed the bill unanimously. But in the House, most
the Democrats and a few Republican opponents of the president’s policy
they could not support the search for a solution. They opposed the
and prevented its passage. Their intransigence sent a very strange
They would have the federal government fund the exploration of
pluripotent stem cells only if it involved destroying human embryos.
were not interested. They would only back the science if it were
These opponents of the stem-cell-alternatives bill included the entire
House leadership, and this year they have prevented the same bill from
coming to a vote.
Step by step these past few years, the public arguments for overturning
Bush funding policy and using taxpayer dollars to encourage embryo
have fallen apart, and the possibility of a consensus solution to this
battle has emerged. But the leaders of the effort to overturn the
policy have opted to ignore the facts and turn down a potential
They would prefer a political rallying point over a scientific way
Let us hope the Congress as a whole does not make the same choice.
— Yuval Levin is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and
editor of The New Atlantis magazine.
Catholic commentators welcome stem cell
Italian researcher Paolo De Coppi's groundbreaking research paper
amniotic stem cells was rejected by four scientific journals over seven
before its publication this week in Nature Biotechnology but Catholic
have welcomed the discovery as making available a new source of
acceptable stem cells.
Advances in stem-cell research could be faster with amniotic fluid
with embryos, De Coppi, 35, who is on sabbatical from Padua University,
Italian agency ANSA Monday.
"We believe that, from a therapeutic standpoint, by using stem
from amniotic fluid, we may reach applications faster than with
stem cells," Paolo De Coppi told the agency.
De Coppi said he and co-author Anthony Atala of the US did not
to hinder stem-cell research using embryos - a technique that is
by much of the scientific community but opposed by conservatives in
countries including Italy.
While stressing that he himself opposes research with embryos, De
said he and Atala "certainly do not wish to hinder other types of
However, he disclosed that he had the impression since 2001, when
first started presenting his work at conferences, that the scientific
which has invested heavily in embryo research, was resistant to the
of amniotic stem cells proving useful.
"It took seven years to get our paper published ... it was
"We had the impression that many of the criticisms raised (in
the paper) were motivated by a resistance to the idea of finding an
to embryonic stem cells because the American scientific community fears
on research with embryos.
"We could have had the discovery published sooner by opting to
our results to a less prestigious journal," De Coppi said.
"But that way we would have lost credibility with the scientific
"Therefore, we decided to overcome the hostility".
The publication of the paper in Britain's leading stem-cell
has electrified the research community.
In the paper, De Coppi and Atala present evidence of amniotic
diversifying into various kinds of bodily tissue - a result previously
thought possible by using embryos.
Although such cells had been found before, De Coppi's study
they can be isolated from the fluid more easily than previously thought
coaxed into developing into muscle, bone, liver, brain and other major
types in the search for new treatments for diabetes, paralysis and many
maladies, the San Francisco Chronicle adds.
Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the US Conference of
Bishops Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities welcomed the report
Sunday's report "is one in a line of studies showing very
stem cells can be obtained from a number of different products after
birth - amniotic membrane, amniotic fluid, cord blood, placenta, even
cord tissue," he said.
"There is no reason why the amniotic fluid couldn't be obtained,
no moral problem whatever. So, we welcome this further advance in
the known sources of potentially useful stem cells."
Regenerative medicine is an exciting new field with enormous
potential for repairing damaged organs and body parts with human stem
cells. But if
their source is human embryos, there is a serious ethical difficulty.
destruction of human beings for the sake of their stem cells is
unacceptable. The author of this backgrounder is Dr Amin Abboud,
a medical doctor and bioethicist who teaches at the University of New
Wales in Sydney.
Dr Abboud is a medical doctor and bioethicist who teaches at the
of New South Wales, in Sydney. He is also director of Australasian
Bioethics Information, a clearinghouse for news about ethical
in medicine and medical research.
Why the controversy?
The average person is baffled by the stem cell debate.
mitochondria, cytoplasm and dozens of other words are terms that they
even learned properly in high school biology. But you don’t need to be
biologist to understand the importance of the ethical controversy which
put stem cells on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
The fundamental issue is the limits of regenerative medicine. This is
exciting new field with enormous potential for repairing damaged organs
body parts with human stem cells. Vast amounts of money and research
are being invested in it. But like every technological development, it
not ethically neutral. We have to ask where these stem cells will come
If their source is human embryos, there is a serious ethical
The destruction of embryos for the sake of stem cells is ethically
Human life, even embryonic human life, cannot be sacrificed as a
tool or a medicine.
A brief introduction to stem cells
Normally a skin cell remains as a skin cell all its life. A
nerve cell remains as a nerve cell until it dies and so on. Stem cells,
however, are cells that
can change into other types of cells, such as heart cells, nerve cells,
cells, skin cells and so on. They are the trunk or the major branches
which smaller branches (different cell types) develop. The ultimate
cell are the stem cells in the early embryo because they can develop
every single cell type.
Stem cell science is very new and scientists are constantly rewriting
the textbooks. At the moment, public discussion is focused on two kinds
cells: adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells can
taken from body tissue without harming a patient. The word
means only that the cell has been taken from a fully developed
This could be an adult, a child, or even from the placenta of a
infant. Embryonic stem cells are removed from early embryos in a
which destroys the embryo. Another type of stem cell is the embryonic
cell, or foetal stem cell, which is taken from aborted foetuses. These
believed to have almost the same potential as embryonic stem cells.
This backgrounder focuses on the ethics of using embryonic stem cells.
there are ethical issues with the use of adult stem cells, as with any
treatment, the use of embryonic stem cells is inherently problematic
it always involves the destruction of an embryo.
The potential benefits of stem cell treatment
It is important to understand why scientists are so excited by the
of stem cell research. You can think of stem cell therapy as a kind of
organ transplant. When injected into the body, the cells will travel to
tissue and replace or repair it. Currently there are many degenerative
which cannot be treated effectively. Stem cell therapies, scientists
could possibly cure patients with Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, spinal
injuries, heart disease and cancer.
But these developments are a long way off. Even boosters of embryonic
cell research have conceded that stem cell therapies may be decades
Diseases are always complex and cures are never simple. Enthusiastic
about the theoretical possibility of cures often glosses over
of work in the laboratory to create a therapy which is workable, safe
and cost-effective. Optimism must always be tempered with realism.
It is important to stress that the only stem cells that have helped
so far are adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research has not
a single patient in the entire world. Up til now, it has a zero success
Obtaining stem cells from embryos
Human embryos are not easy to obtain. At the present time,
there are basically
three sources: embryos which are left over from IVF treatment, embryos
are created in the laboratory from donor eggs and sperm, or embryos
are cloned from somatic (body) cells.
The embryo is allowed to grow for about five to seven days after
and then it is divided into its component parts. Of course, the embryo
killed in the process. The stem cells are placed in cultures
they multiply rapidly into colonies, or clusters, of cells. The next
is to coax them into becoming the desired cell type (e.g., heart cells,
cells, brain cells). Programming the cell to differentiate is the focus
intense effort by many researchers around the world. Up to now they
had very limited success.
Some stem cell scientists regard frozen IVF embryos or embryos made
donated eggs and sperm as a useful research tool for investigating the
of embryo development and the mechanisms of genetic diseases. But, at
stage, it is highly unlikely that they can be used for cures. The
is that the stem cells from these embryos will not have the same
make-up as the patients and will be rejected without using
So the preferred option, in the view of many scientists, is
to create new embryos, via nuclear somatic transfer. This is the same
used to clone Dolly the sheep. That is, human embryos would be
deliberately created for the sole purpose of extracting their stem
cells, a procedure
often billed as “therapeutic cloning”. This is a great misnomer
it is not therapeutic for the embryo. Some scientists and biotechnology
predict that cloing embryos will usher in the age of “personalized
-- treatments which are tailor-made for individual patients. This
of course, that scientists will be allowed to create “embryo farms” on
Therapeutic cloning also involves another serious ethical problem. The
availability of human eggs limits its potential. Eggs are scarce and
few women are willing to experience the pain, inconvenience and
risk involved in harvesting eggs. If a market develops for eggs, poor
are sure to be exploited -- which is one reason why a number of
oppose “therapeutic” cloning. Therefore, in an escalation of the moral
associated with stem cell research, some researchers have
the possibility of creating hybrid cow-human or rabbit-human embryos
Adult stem cells and regenerative medicine
The only stem cells which have worked in a clinical setting
are adult stem cells. In fact, adult stem cells have been used
for about 30 years in procedures like bone marrow transplants. In the
last few years, scientists
have also discovered that adult stem cells exist in many parts of our
body -- the brain, bone marrow, skin and fat and many other locations.
use of these cells has had an impressive head start, although no
have yet passed all the hurdles to become a standard clinical treatment.
It used to be thought that embryonic stem cells had more clinical
than adult stem cells because they are easier to identify, isolate and
because they are easier to obtain; because they grow more quickly and
in a laboratory setting; and because they are more “plastic”.
Yet all these arguments have proved false. The first two claims are
The challenge of identifying and isolating adult stem cells is being
Several biotech companies have developed proprietary methods to make
cell isolation and extraction even easier. Although every kind of adult
cell is present distinct problems, researchers have identified
that would allow the multiplication of some kinds by a billion-fold in
The key argument for using stem cells from embryos is they are more
— that is, they are easier to change into other types of cells. While
claim has some basis the technology is improving so rapidly that it
be rash for anyone to say that adult stem cells will not become a
of all types of somatic cells. The US National Institutes of
has observed that “the field of stem-cell biology is advancing at an
pace with new discoveries being reported in the scientific literature
a weekly basis.”
While adult stem cells may never be as completely “plastic” as embryo
stem cells they will almost certainly be plastic enough for all
“These adult tissues don’t appear to be as restricted in their fate as
thought they were,” said Dennis Steindler, a professor of
and neurosurgery at the University of Tennessee-Memphis. “In some ways
may not have the same potential as embryonic cells, but once we figure
their molecular genetics, we should be able to coax them into becoming
anything we want them to be.”
Furthermore, some researchers are doing promising work on
stem cells which appear to share with embryonic stem cells the ability
morph into any type of tissue. Three scientists have recently published
work which indicates that some kinds of adult stem cells may be as
as ESCs. Catherine Verfaillie, of the University of Minnesota, is
rare bone marrow stem cells; Alan Mackay-Sim, of Griffith University in
Brisbane, is looking at nerve cells in the nose; and Douglas Losardo,
of Tufts University,
has found that bone marrow differentiated into nine kinds of tissue.
as it may seem to the non-scientist, the anatomy of the human body
has not been fully categorized at a cellular level; there may be other
which can differentiate into many kinds of tissue.
Media hype suggests that there is no alternative to embryonic stem cell
research. But this is a deception propagated by those with a personal
financial interest in the benefits of destructive embryo research. No
has a right to destroy embryos to do this research. We should push
with successful and ethical adult stem cell research which involves no
of embryos -- and works.
Stem cells and cloning
Embryonic stem cell research is the threshold of cloning.
As we have already seen, to overcome the problem of immune rejection,
the proponents of embryonic
stem cell therapies will have to clone embryos. Although nearly all
have vowed not to allow these cloned embryos to develop into babies,
certainly could if they were implanted in a womb. Several rogue
have already attempted to do this.
Furthermore, nearly all scientists who want to work with embryonic stem
cells do not appear to have ethical qualms about so-called reproductive
cloning. They simply say that it is unsafe for the cloned child. In its
for stem cell research, the US National Academies of Sciences says (May
merely that “attempts to create a child by means of NT [nuclear
or cloning] are ethically objectionable at this time because, on the
of experience with other mammalian species, producing one child might
hundreds of pregnancies and many abnormal late-term fetuses could be
At the present time, this is undoubtedly true. But veterinary
are working hard to overcome these problems and eventually their
research will be applied successfully to the problem of human cloning.
When that happens
the gossamer-thin ethical objections of stem cell scientists will
Unless we can put a stop to embryo cloning, the cloning of children is
but certain. The only “bright line” separating therapeutic cloning from
cloning is the intention of the laboratory which creates the embryos.
a few American couples have publicly appealed to clone their dead
American lawyers have speculated that if there is a constitutional
to reproduction, there must be a constitutional right to the means to
even if this means cloning.
The ethics of stem cell science
The debate over embryo research is not a specifically religious
issue. First and foremost it is a human rights debate and a debate
about good science
versus bad science. In this case, the science which respect human
has notched up all the successes. Religion sheds light on the stem cell
by highlighting the importance and scope of human dignity as revealed
the Bible or the Koran. But one does not need to be a believer to see
manipulating and destroying human embryos involves serious ethical
Because embryos are an early form of human life, the principles which
how they are treated will be applied to other stages of human
But the fundamental parameters of the debate are set by what
competent ethical science which respects human rights.
The debate over embryonic stem cells is fierce and emotional. But it is
to stress the following points:
- It is unethical to destroy a human embryo. The destruction
innocent human life can never be justified, even if the aim is to save
another human life. It is often argued that embryos are too small to be
can therefore be used as research material. But size is no guide to the
of things. If the Big Bang theory is to be believed, the entire
was once smaller than the period at the end of this sentence -- yet it
literally everything. Similarly, embryos are said to lack humanity
they cannot survive outside of the womb. True enough, but the world's
famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, is confined to a wheelchair and
even speak because he suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease. He is utterly
upon his carers -- but no one questions his humanity.
- Embryonic stem cells can cause cancer. They certainly
very “plastic”, but the flip side of plasticity is a predisposition to
malignant. This is a real concern even for supporters of embryo
The editor of the journal Stem Cells in September 2001 made
startling admission “I continue to think that clinical application is a
way off. Prior to clinical use of embryonic and foetal stem cells, it
be necessary to thoroughly investigate the malignant potential of
stem cells.” Adult stem cells seem to be more stable than embryonic
cells and are not as prone to the formation of tumours.
- It is unnecessary to use embryos. Adult stem cells are
proving to be a viable alternative. For example umbilical-cord blood
placenta blood are both rich in stem cells. Scientists have found stem
in adults in virtually every major organ, including the brain. And as
have seen, they have already been successfully used in treatment, while
stem cells still offer only theoretical potential for good. This point
worth emphasising: While many actual benefits have been obtained from
stem cells over recent years, we have as yet no demonstrated benefit to
human patients from embryonic stem cells.
- The benefits of embryonic stem cell research are a
way off. Although media hype -- sometimes fed by publicity-hungry
-- often hints that cures for dread diseases are only five to ten years
this is very doubtful. It is criminal to give the sick false hope about
the imminence of cures.
- In fact, because therapies are so distant, supporters of the
use of embryonic stem cells began to shift their arguments after the
US election. Nowadays they are very cautious to emphasis the dangers of
hope. However, they now stress that these cells will be very useful for
into the genetic basis of disease and for drug testing. Pharmaceutical
companies need to know whether new products could harm patients and how
actually work. Because animal liberation activists are making it very
to conduct animal experiments, researchers can use embryos instead.
are cheaper and less controversial than lab animals. In other words,
fate of embryos used in research is less likely to be curing the sick
enriching entrepreneurial scientists and big drug companies.
- By using adult stem cells we overcome the problem of immune
which will be a big problem with the use of embryonic stem cells. Our
quickly recognise and try to kill off foreign tissues implanted in
By using cells from your own body, the compatibility problem is
Embryo research and human dignity
Research on embryos is research on embryonic persons. It denies
dignity of the human embryo. The human embryo is a distinct, living
being, and is entitled to all the rights and protections as any other
human being. Human life begins at conception (or fertilisation).
human embryo (regardless of what means by which it is created) should
be treated as a means to an end. It is entitled to life and respect.
embryonic development commences, a separate and distinct human being
whoshould not be used in a purely instrumental fashion. For this reason
technology or proposed therapeutic procedure which involves the
of a human embryo should be banned altogether.
Those who argue that a frozen IVF embryo would be destroyed anyway miss
the point. The couples who had the embryos created did so for the
of implantation, of bringing about life. That surplus embryos exist
be a real concern. It is a scientific mess created by the IVF process.
we should not add to the mess by experimenting on the embryos. We need
find more humane solutions to the ethical dilemma of surplus IVF
Adoption is one possibility. If this is not an option then they can be
to die with dignity.
Experimenting upon embryos denies them their fundamental right to be
with dignity. This can be a hard point to grasp, but an historical
might help to clarify the issues. Not long ago in Austria body parts of
of babies and children were discovered in the office of a famous
He had obtained them during the Nazi period of 1940 to 1944 and used
in his research. When this came to light Austrians were outraged. The
did not argue that the children were dead anyway and that valuable
could be obtained from their vital organs. A public interment was
by huge crowds of mourners. The situation with defenceless embryos is
Licenses to Kill
Embryonic Stem Cell Work Gets Go-ahead
By Father John Flynn
CANBERRA, Australia, NOV. 19, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Proponents of research
stem cells from human embryos have won a number of victories. In
the federal Senate narrowly voted to allow stem cells from cloned
to be used for research.
In a 34-32 vote, senators overturned restrictions approved by the upper
in 2002, reported the Age newspaper on Nov. 8. The bill now goes to the
of Representatives, where it is expected to receive approval.
The vote followed a government report published last year, the Lockhart
named after a former judge, John Lockhart, who conducted an inquiry
the issue. His report recommended allowing the cloning of human embryos
the harvesting of stem cells for research.
Those in favor of the measure argued that it was vital in order to
scientists to undertake experiments to find cures for the sick. Others,
warned of the dangerous consequences. "No matter how seemingly well
the subsequent purpose/use might be," warned John Hogg, a senator for
during the debate, "the initial action in creating the cloned human
crosses fundamental ethical lines."
The approval was greeted with dismay by some politicians, the
newspaper reported Nov. 8. Steve Fielding, leader of the political
Family First, said he backed the search for cures for diseases but
not tolerate cloning. "We have crossed a line where we will be creating
human being with the intention of destroying it," he said.
The Catholic Church strongly opposed the lifting of restrictions. In
published Nov. 2 by the Australian newspaper, Cardinal George Pell of
assailed as an affront to human dignity the idea of "therapeutic
to produce stem cells for research.
Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney gave testimony before the
Community Affairs Committee during hearings on the stem cell issue. He
senators Oct. 20 that the Church does not oppose stem cell research so
as it is conducted in an ethical way.
Denial of dignity
But cloning human beings "is ethically abhorrent," Bishop Fisher
"To clone them is a failure of respect for the human being who is
and a denial of universal human dignity."
In a statement issued Oct. 11 the Australian Catholic bishops pointed
that the Church's opposition to the use of embryonic stem cells was not
attempt to impose religious principles in the civil sphere. "We do not
against destructive experimentation on embryos simply because we are
but because of basic human values," they explained. "As a society we
seek to alleviate the suffering of some people by creating and then
In the lead-up to the vote the proposal was also criticized for
women's interests. Monique Baldwin, who holds a doctorate in
observed that women must provide a large supply of ova in order to
the cloned embryos.
Baldwin, whose comments appeared Nov. 8 in the Age newspaper, is an
representative of Hands Off Our Ovaries, an international coalition of
Extracting the ova, she explained, involved weeks of testing, followed
more than a week of hormone injections. In the process, up to 10% of
develop ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a painful condition that is
Baldwin also questioned the scientific need for allowing cloning. The
already allows research on stem cells from embryos "left over" from in
fertilization treatment. Scientists, she noted, have used only 179
IVF embryos from the more than 104,000 embryos in storage -- yet they
asking for more embryos, deliberately cloned to be destroyed.
Embryonic stem cell research is going ahead in the United States as
A referendum held during the elections last week saw voters in Missouri
a state constitutional amendment prohibiting government officials from
the use of experiments with embryo stem cells.
The measure was approved of a margin of 51% to 49%, reported the
Times on Nov. 9. A number of states have now undermined the federal
ban on official funding for experiments using embryo stem cells.
According to an analysis published Oct. 5 on the Stateline.org Web
six states had already taken steps to fund research. So far, California
committed $3 billion for the research; Connecticut has committed $20
Illinois, $15 million; New Jersey, $5.5 million; Maryland, $15 million;
Massachusetts, $15 million. Another 27 states, however, have laws
embryonic stem cell research.
The vote in Missouri will add to pressure in favor of lifting the
federal ban on funds for embryo stem cell experiments. Nancy Pelosi, a
Democrat who will be the next speaker of the House of Representatives,
she will make federal support for such research a priority, Reuters
The vote also emboldened scientists in Germany to seek a change in the
restricting research with embryos. The DFG institute of scientists,
Nov. 10 by Reuters as "influential," called for the lifting of a
law approved in 2002 that controls the import of embryonic cells from
stem lines and bars their production in Germany.
German Research Minister Annette Schavan, however, rejected the demand,
Tapping a "surplus"
Other countries, nevertheless, have recently given the green light to
using human embryos. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research gave
to use embryos for stem cell research for the first time, the National
newspaper reported June 27.
The approval allows the use of "surplus" embryos from IVF treatments,
only those already frozen, but also new ones still to be created. The
approved is organized by the Canadian Stem Cell Network, a federally
A month later, the European Union agreed to continue funding research
embryonic stem cells. The approval came in spite of opposition from
EU member countries, reported the BBC on July 24.
European Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potocnik said the
Union would not finance the "procurement" of embryonic stem cells -- a
which results in the death of the embryo -- but it would finance the
steps" to make use of the cells.
No such restrictions are in place in Singapore. The New York Times on
17 described how the country is keen to establish itself as a center
Singapore still bans the sale of chewing gum, so as not to dirty the
Human life, it seems, is not valued so highly as clean streets, and a
company is now selling vials of embryonic stem cells over the Internet
Research that involves the suppression of human lives will be condemned
history, warned Benedict XVI in an address to members of the Pontifical
for Life on Sept. 16, 2005.
"No one can dispose of human life," the Pope stated. "The human being
not a disposable object, but every single individual represent's God's
in the world." The Holy Father went on to condemn the legalization of
involving the taking of life as being equivalent to the legalization of
A move, unfortunately, being approved in only too many countries.