The world has changed. It is the beginning of the end of the controversy that has surrounded this field. Over time, these [induced] cells will be used in more and more labs. And human embryo stem cell research will be abandoned by more and more labs. — James Thomson, University of Wisconsin researcher, announcing the successful genetic transformation of human skin cells into stem cells
This was the reaction to the announcement that a team led by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, and a second team at the University of Wisconsin led by James Thomson, had used similar methods to turn back the genetic clock on ordinary human skin cells, making them “pluripotent.” These pluripotent cells were then successfully coaxed to grow into a variety of other human tissues. For years, scientists have thought only embryonic stem cells had the magical quality of pluipotency. No longer.
Partly due to the extreme pressures brought by ethicists, primarily Christians, to restrict experimentation on human embryos, and partly because of the frustrating scientific challenges presented by embryonic stem cells, scientists pursued other options.
This new development is so promising that Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly, the cloned sheep, has decided to abandon his work in cloning for the new approach.
Research with adult stem cells has already produced scores of actual treatments for disease. Now that scientists have learned a trick for transforming ordinary skin cells into “induced pluripotent stem cells,” there seems little reason to continue to experiment on human embryos.
Ethicists, religious leaders and members of the public who have expressed concerns about experimentation on human embryos have for years been heavily criticized for allegedly putting up a road block in the path of cures for some of our most difficult human diseases. Actor Michael J Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, has long been among the outspoken critics of President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
“There was a prejudice, now shown to be wrong, against the very idea that you could take an adult cell and reprogram it back into an embryonic-like state,” said Douglas A. Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
It will now be argued that the willingness of Bush and other political leaders to stand up against emotional appeals by Fox and other spokespersons for various diseases has forced science to find another way, a better way.
Pluripotent, embryonic-like stem cells may never live up to their hype as the Holy Grail for curing disease, but at least we now have a promising new research path that preserves human dignity by avoiding the need to experiment on human embryos.
James Thomson may be overstating things a bit when he says “the world has changed,” but he is right in thinking that this is very good news in the effort to safeguard human dignity while fighting disease.
(To read more about Michael J Fox’s important role in raising awareness for Parkinson’s disease, read my earlier post called Michael, Milly and Parkinson’s Disease.
Photo credit: 3-day-old embryos created by IVF, from Sir Ganga Ram Hospital Centre of IVF and Human Reproduction.