The Pluripotency Pickle: The Story Of A Lie

April 15, 2009 09:00 AM

Pickle – a difficult situation; a sour solution

Several years ago, in one of her most important scientific papers, Professor Dianne Irving discussed the nature of the pluripotent stem cell, which when taken from the human embryo, can itself become a human embryo. In her analysis, entitled Stem Cells That Become Embryos: Implications For the NIH Guidelines On Stem Cell Research, The NIH Stem Cell Report, Informed Consent, And Patient Safety In Clinical Trials. Analysis: Parts I And II, she wrote,

The purpose of this scientific analysis is to demonstrate empirically, scientifically, and beyond any shadow of a doubt, that indeed, once separated from the whole intact human embryo, human embryonic and fetal "pluripotent" stem cells can become new living human embryos themselves, new living human beings – as we already know happens even naturally in monozygotic twinning.

At the time that this paper was written, few paid attention to what she had to say, but now, in 2009, her analysis is perhaps more useful than ever. The reason has to do with what some pro-life experts are calling a miracle – the discovery of "embryo-like” induced pluripotent stem cells. The only problem with the celebration is that it has no validity.

In 2001, when the above-noted analysis was published, Professor Irving warned,

If the scientific and legal basis for the NIH Guidelines is that human "pluripotent stem cells" are "not themselves embryos," but if it has been empirically and scientifically demonstrated here that all of these "pluripotent stem cells" naturally strive to become and succeed in becoming embryos themselves (which will then also be cultivated and killed), then there is absolutely no scientific or legal basis for the existing NIH Guidelines. Indeed, the very use of such cells would in fact constitute the "creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes," and thus automatically violate the Congressional ban.

And today, the quagmire that surrounded the false science of the National Institutes of Health has taken on an entirely new and more horrific meaning for those of us who care about truth.

In November 2007, Professor Shinya Yamanaka announced that he had discovered a way to reprogram a skin cell in such a way that those involved in human embryonic stem cell research would no longer have to face the ethical landmines surrounding the destruction of human embryos. In fact, enthusiasm ran so high that Professor Ian Wilmut, of "Dolly the sheep" fame,  “was quoted as saying he's abandoning his cloning efforts to adopt the skin cell pluripotent approach."

Since that time, research teams from Britain, Canada and the U.S. have made similar discoveries and similar claims. But as Professor Irving pointed out in an interview,

The human studies reported so far have all used human embryos or human fetuses as sources of materials for cell culture, for genes that are transferred, and for assays, as well as for the original cells that are transformed.

No test is reported to determine if totipotent cells (which could be newly formed human embryos) are inadvertently formed while producing iPS cells, and any damage to the original cell's DNA or any left-over foreign DNA would surely cause serious immune rejection reactions in the patients.

But nobody was listening, and research moved forward until, in late March, it was announced that stem cell pioneer James Thomson, of the University of Wisconsin, and his team of scientists were able to take this "reprogramming" of cells to a new level. Thompson claims he can convert adult stem cells into embryonic-like stem cells, but this time, without the use of viruses, unlike his previous research.

This alleged advance was hailed by many pro-life bioethics experts, but not by Dr. Irving, nor by Deborah Vinnedge, of the Children of God for Life vaccine research organization. In fact, Vinnedge was quick to point out,

The most recent announcement last week was that of James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in which he reprogrammed neonatal foreskin cells, which are classified as "adult" or "mature" stem cells, using a plasmid, technique to deliver the genes into the foreskin cells, rather than a lentivirus. The result was a transformation of the adult cells to an "embryonic" state. While Thomson hailed the process as much safer than past experiments (which is still highly debatable) in which he used lentiviruses to deliver the genes, what was not reported was his use of embryonic stem cells and aborted fetal cell lines as sources for the genes. (emphasis added)

Yes, the so-called ethical alternative to human embryonic stem cell research has turned out to be anything but ethical! But who cares? Who is calling Thompson and his colleagues to task?
The frenzy has spread far beyond Thompson and the verbal engineers, however. Just a week ago, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Dr. Mehmet Oz told the world, with Michael J. Fox sitting right next to him, that a cure for Fox's Parkinson's disease is right around the corner.

Millions of Americans watching Oprah undoubtedly felt  empathy for Michael J. Fox and unbridled enthusiasm for Dr. Oz's amazing claim. But hold on a minute! Not so fast, Dr. Oz. You have failed to tell the whole truth, and you have forgotten the accurate scientific facts that would show that what you claimed is so promising for patients like Fox is actually a sham.

Upon studying this video, Professor Irving points us in the correct direction. Below is an excerpt from her writing, but the entire article is worth your time.

The [You Tube] video proceeded to be passed around the world at the speed of light. The new research explained by Dr. Oz to Oprah in this video is referred to as "induced pluripotent stem cell" research (iPS research). As Dr. Oz noted, an adult human cell (e.g., a patient's own skin cell) can be transformed or induced from a very differentiated state back to a relatively less differentiated state to form an "embryo-like" human cell that is "pluripotent" (capable of forming most of the cells, tissues and organs of an adult human being). These new iPS human cells could then possibly be urged to develop forward to produce more mature differentiated human cells for therapeutic purposes. But three things are important to distinguish before iPS research is so enthusiastically embraced as an "ethical alternative to human embryonic stem cell research".

First, iPS research is not equivalent to "adult stem cell research." The starting material (a human adult or mature body cell) may be the same, but what happens after that is very different. In the typical adult human stem cell research that has been reported for many years now, and which truly is an ethical alternative to human embryonic stem cell research, the adult human cell is not transformed or induced (by various means) back to a pluripotent human "embryo-like" stem cell. Rather, these adult human stem cells are already found naturally in the human body and are simply urged to develop to a more mature state. No problem.

In iPS research, however, the highly differentiated DNA in the adult human cell that is used as the starting material is transformed or induced (by various means) back to the state of differentiation of the DNA as found in human embryonic pluripotent "stem cells". These "embryo-like" human pluripotent "stem cells" are then urged to become more mature in order to develop human cells for therapies.

Second, there are many scientific and ethical problems with iPS research that must be resolved before such research can be considered as "an ethical alternative to human embryonic stem cell research." Perhaps Dr. Oz's use of the term "embryo-like" might provide a clue. Are these iPS cells just "embryo-like", or are they –  at least sometimes – really single- or multiple-cell early human "embryos"?

Clearly, Professor Irving's analysis is not going to warm the hearts of all those advocates of this new "ethical" alternative to human embryonic stem cell research, but what her analysis does do is challenge the lack of total accuracy that seems to be the calling card of scientists involved in iPS research.

The pluripotency pickle that has been created by half-truths and baseless scientific claims can and should be resolved. But the thing that bothers me most about this is not the lies, which are everywhere, but the people whose hearts will be broken because they so hoped for an ethical solution to a tragic dilemma, and instead they received a pickle.

Back to news