IPS And The USCCB: A Bad Formula

September 10, 2008 09:00 AM
I have just finished looking at the latest advertisement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, entitled "Science is moving on. Isn't it time for public policy to get on board?"

The ad speaks about the reprogramming of "ordinary body cells into 'induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells'" and claims that with the advent of this new research comes the opportunity to avoid "harming human embryos."

While we are all in agreement that experimenting on embryonic human children must end, we should equally agree that caution must be emphasized when addressing unproven, supposed scientific breakthroughs that could also be dangerous.

We at American Life League did not have the opportunity to provide input prior to the ad's release, for if we had, we would have shared the following with those who determined the ad's content.

We learn from Professor Dianne Irving that two of the researchers quoted in the USCCB ad, Dr. James Thomson and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, who both conducted research in which adult human skin cells were "reprogrammed" into embryonic-like stem cells – also known as induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS – admit to the possibility of serious ethical problems. Irving writes,
Since most basic research studies realistically resolve some existing concerns but not necessarily all, the researchers are generally open to and intellectually honest about noting themselves some of the on-going unresolved issues in their studies as well. For example, in the Yamanaka and Thomson iPS cell studies, it is acknowledged that foreign genes could end up in germ line cells (and thus be passed on through the generations), that tumor markers on iPS cells were picked up in assays, and that the possibility exists for the presence of unknown genetic errors and mutations in iPS cells that could also be passed on to patients.

Furthermore, when Dr. Yamanaka's research was first being discussed, we invited Debi Vinnedge, wrote that
while some allege the iPS cells would eliminate immune rejection problems in patients, foreign DNA from both the retroviruses and from the DNA segments of embryonic/fetal cells attached to them, render such cells clinically useless and dangerous. Additionally, the studies by Yamanaka were performed in reproductively cloned chimeric mice and while none of the 65 subjects developed tumors, Yamanaka notes that some of the mice died for "unknown reasons." Thus it is ludicrous to believe these cells would somehow be suitable for human applications from both medical and moral perspectives. Yet unless pro-life groups voice their disdain now while the research is still in infancy stages, one should not be surprised when clinical applications do emerge that utilize deliberately destroyed human beings. Aborted fetal vaccines are proof enough of what happens when science moves forward morally unchallenged.
Writing in U.S. News & World Report, Dr. Bernadine Healy expressed caution as well:
Since the initial exuberant response to iPS, some have been pouring cold water on the discovery, fearing that embryo work will be deserted. But embryo-derived cell lines will remain the gold standard for a while; it's too early to hold a beauty contest. Yet if stem cells can be made better, cheaper, and faster from skin than from embryos, that's no cause for hand-wringing. It would be a stem cell victory like no other.

Phrases such as "too early to hold a beauty contest" make me worry that the USCCB may have celebrated the iPS discoveries prematurely.

Concerns for patient safety have not been put to rest because it is far too early to know if this research will result in treatments and therapies that do not endanger the very people they are designed to help. For as John Fauber wrote last year in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,
In light of the genetic modification that was done, one of the big concerns with both approaches is patient safety.

"The procedure involves random insertion of genetic material into the target cells, which might compromise the safety of tissues derived from them," said Martin Pera, a professor of cell and neurobiology at the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.

Because both groups used viruses to get genes into the cells to reprogram them, there is a concern that mutations caused by that process could cause a cell to become cancerous.

Thomson acknowledged the potential for tumor growth. However, he said he was confident that the genetic manipulation eventually could be done without using troubling viruses, thereby limiting the cancer risk.

Another concern is how well the reprogramming process will work with cells from an adult.

The UW researchers used cells from fetuses or newborns and not an adult, said John Lough, a stem cell researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa.

"It's just a shortcoming," Lough said. "It is what it is."

I don't know about you, but for my money, "It is what it is" is really not the sort of language one uses when describing something that will cure rather than possibly exacerbate a problem or create a new one.

Far be it from me to claim expertise in this scientific quagmire known as stem cell research. All we at American Life League want is for the killing of human embryos to end, and for adult stem cell research and other ethical stem cell research using non-embryonic sources to start receiving the support and positive publicity they deserve. We realize that some experimental research could hold promise in the future, but according to many, the current iPS stem cell research is fraught with problems.

When David Cyranoski, author of Cloning Fraud: How Dr. Hwang Conned the World, wrote an article for Nature magazine entitled "Stem Cells: 5 things to know before jumping on the iPS bandwagon," he expressed concerns as well. While Cyranoski's article is not available online unless you have a paid subscription to Nature, his point is that one of the problems with this "new" science is that the hype is blinding many to serious difficulties yet to be explained and eliminated. Let's remember that this research is still in its infancy and still ethically questionable.

Perhaps nobody told the USCCB about this. Maybe now, someone – to whom they will listen – will!
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