A major scientific breakthrough has allowed scientists to reprogram cells, making them similar to embryonic stem cells. But the battle over stem-cell research may not yet be over.
by Kara Hansen
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The national debate on embryonic stem-cell research may be coming to an end.
A major scientific breakthrough has allowed scientists to reprogram cells, making them strikingly similar to embryonic stem cells — all through a relatively simple procedure and without destroying human embryos.
The technique involves reprogramming ordinary human skin cells and developing them into stem cells. The regenerated cells are called iPS (induced Pluripotent Stem) cells. The iPS cells have the ability to become any of the 220 cells in the human body. The iPS cells have the same capability of developing into various organs and tissues, just like embryonic stem cells.
“This technique avoids the ethical problems of embryonic stem-cell research, but the reprogramming process has the capability of making the cell remarkably similar to an embryo,” said Ron Kelsey, consultant for the pro-life office of the archdiocese.
“I think that it’s a significant breakthrough that appears to take away the moral and ethical issues of embryonic stem-cell research and gives the same opportunity to investigate future therapies that may help people with serious illness,” said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann. “It’s a win-win discovery.”
The new development also has the potential to produce more benefits than other stem cells currently being used in the scientific community. Since iPS cells can be taken from a person’s skin, scientists also believe this development will allow them to create stem cells using a patient’s own genetic code, lowering the likelihood the individual’s body might reject an organ or tissue.
“This technology avoids the many ethical land mines associated with embryonic stem-cell research: It does not clone or destroy human embryos, does not harm or exploit women for their eggs, and does not blur the line between human beings and other species through desperate efforts to make human embryos using animal eggs,” said Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
While the new breakthrough is drawing high praise from the church for its ethical integrity, it is also drawing major praise from leaders in the scientific community for its tremendous potential.
“Ian Wilmut, head of the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, now says he is abandoning efforts at human ‘therapeutic cloning’ to pursue this adult-cell reprogramming avenue instead, because it is technically superior as well as ‘easier to accept socially,’” said Cardinal Rigali.
In an Associated Press article, Robert Lanza, owner of Advanced Cell Technology, referred to the reprogramming technique as “the biological equivalent of the Wright brothers’ first airplane.”
One of the main reasons the reprogramming method is such a breakthrough is because of its simplicity.
Stem-cell pioneer James Thomson said the technique was so simple it could be used in thousands of labs in the United States right away, in contrast with the cloning approach, which is so expensive and complex it cannot be a reliable method for providing stem cells for therapy.
There is a catch, however.
In its current state of development, the technique disrupts the DNA of the skin cells. That means the reprogrammed cell has the potential for developing cancer, making it impossible to use in a patient. Since the DNA disruption is a byproduct of the technique, scientists think future discoveries will alleviate that problem. But for now, scientists can only call for more research to discover the range of safe uses of the iPS cells.
“This technique can be replicated easily in labs across the country, so it holds a lot of promise. I think we will find out quickly just how successful it can be,” said Kelsey. “Time will tell what iPS has in store.”
“I still think we have to be very vigilant,” added Archbishop Naumann. “Those who have invested huge amounts of resources and money into embryonic stem-cell research immediately began citing problems [with iPS]. But they are the same problems that we’ve had with embryonic stem cells.
“So I don’t think that we should let down our guard at this point.”
However, successful duplication of the iPS research, concluded the archbishop, “is going to make their case much more difficult.”
Additional reporting by Joe Bollig.