Nothing Noble about THIS Nobel Prize

Since the inception of the Nobel Foundation in 1900, there have been a number of controversial (not to mention completely unworthy) Nobel Prize recipients. In recent decades the Nobel Prize itself—as well as the nomination and selection process in particular—have been viewed by many as pure political propaganda. Critics charge that far more qualified candidates are routinely overlooked. Given our “politically correct” universe, there are no surprises there.

Yet, because the Nobel Prize comes complete with a diploma, a gold medal, and a large chunk of cash ($1.1 million), it is still considered the world’s most prestigious award, is highly sought after, and is greatly coveted. Where there is big money, prestige tends to follow. No surprises there either.

What is surprising is the warm and glowing response to this year’s recipients of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine: Sir John B. Gurdon, 79, of Dippenhall, England, and Shinya Yamanaka, 50, of Osaka, Japan. The two share the Nobel Prize for “work that revolutionized the understanding of how cells and organisms develop.” Various pro-life, Christian, and Catholic organizations and media outlets are heaping praise on the two for their “contributions.” Unfortunately, this praise is misinformed, misguided, and a cause for concern. Here’s why:

In 1962, while studying the process of egg fertilization and the cell division that results in the growth of a new organism, Sir Gurdon “showed that the genetic information inside a cell taken from the intestines of a frog contained all the information needed to create a whole new frog. He took the genetic information and placed it inside a frog egg. The resulting clone developed into a normal tadpole.” 

In other words, Gurdon removed the genetic material contained within the nucleus of a somatic (or body) cell (in this case, the intestine) and inserted it into an egg cell replacing the nucleus it originally contained. This process is known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)—a method of cloning. Gurdon was the first to clone an animal—albeit a tadpole! 

Most people have probably not heard of Gurdon or his research, but it paved the way for the more infamous research of Ian Wilmut, the first to clone a mammal—Dolly, the lamb—in 1996. 

Shinya Yamanaka, on the other hand, has studied cell development in the reverse, so to speak. He is credited with figuring out “how to reprogram mature cells so that they revert to their primitive state as ‘induced pluripotent stem cells,’ or iPS cells, capable of developing into any part of the body.” 

When Yamanaka’s research was published in 2007, several bioethicists and many pro-life leaders touted iPS cells as the ethical alternative to embryonic stem cell research. Because it was publicized as a method of turning mature, adult stem cells into “embryonic-like” stem cells that could then be further reprogrammed into other stem cells, what was not to like? But, the devil is in the details.

Reprogramming a mature, adult skin cell (technically speaking, it was a fibroblast cell) into an embryonic-like stem cell requires the infusion of the cell with regulator genes (younger DNA) that will cause the cell to regress in age. A team of UCLA researchers confirmed in early 2008 that the “genes used in combination to reprogram the skin cells regulate expression of downstream genes and either activate or silence their expression.” 

Where does one obtain youthful DNA of an embryonic nature? They get it from human embryonic stem cell lines and aborted fetal material! 

Theresa A. Deisher, PhD, founder of AVM Biotechnology and a world renowned scientist in the field of adult stem cell therapies and regenerative medicine, notes that while iPS cell research could actually be conducted without the use of human fetal material (such as HeLa, COS, or CHO cells, none of which come from electively aborted preborn babies), all such research to date has utilized HEK-293 (human embryonic kidney, specimen number 293), modified versions of the HEK cell line known as PLAT-A, PLAT-E, 293FT, and Phoenix cells. Also used are IMR-90 (page, 447; a future replacement for WI-38 currently used in vaccine production) and MRC-5, both of which are aborted fetal cell lines. 

Dr. Yamanaka used PLAT-E cells as well as MEL-1 hES (which is a male embryonic stem cell line derived from donated IVF embryos in Australia) for reprogramming cells. (See Yamanaka’s research, “Induction of Pluripotent Stem Cells from Adult Human Fibroblasts by Defined Factors,” pages 9 and 10.)

Debi Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life and a nationally recognized author and speaker who has provided testimony for congressional hearings on human embryonic stem cell research, explains the process used by Yamanaka:

Scientists used a technique known as PCR, or Polymerase Chain Reaction. PCR is [a] technique that allows production of large quantities of specific DNA using a simple enzyme reaction. The embryonic and/or aborted fetal DNA was “spliced” or added into the lentivirus DNA, which then delivered it to the adult skin cells. As the aged cells’ DNA mingled with the new DNA and continued to replicate in petri dishes in the lab, they literally reversed their aging process to the embryonic state. And voila! Embryonic stem cells developed from the modified adult stem cells.

So, no, Yamanaka did not use eggs or embryos in his research, as many point out, but he and his team did use human embryonic stem cell lines and/or aborted human fetal remains.

While it is true that the scientists involved in the reprogramming research may not have directly destroyed embryos, or participated in the original abortions, they did use cell lines taken from human beings that were deliberately destroyed and then used for research purposes. And both the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have condemned such practices.

In its statement, Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells, the Pontifical Academy for Life answers the question:

Is it morally licit to use ES [embryonic stem] cells, and the differentiated cells obtained from them, which are supplied by other researchers or are commercially obtainable?

The answer is negative, since: Prescinding from the participation—formal or otherwise—in the morally illicit intention of the principal agent, the case in question entails a proximate material cooperation in the production and manipulation of human embryos on the part of those producing or supplying them. 

Further, the encyclical Dignitas Personae, paragraph 35, also states: 

Therefore, it needs to be stated that there is a duty to refuse to use such “biological material” even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, or when there was no prior agreement with the centers in which the artificial fertilization took place. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life. (emphasis added)

In addition to the problem of using human embryonic stem cell lines, it must also be noted that Yamanaka’s research has been used to advance a new technique in cloning. Steve Connor, science editor for the Independent, wrote the following in an April 14, 2008, article entitled “Now We Have the Technology that Can Make a Cloned Child”:

Scientists who used the procedure to create baby mice from the skin cells of adult animals have found it to be far more efficient than the Dolly technique, with fewer side effects, which makes it more acceptable for human use.

The mice were made by inserting skin cells of an adult animal into early embryos produced by in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Some of the resulting offspring were partial clones but some were full clones—just like Dolly.

Unlike the Dolly technique, however, the procedure is so simple and efficient that it has raised fears that it will be seized on by IVF doctors to help infertile couples who are eager to have their own biological children.

In the same article, Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of the American biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology, said that, while cloning “isn’t here now” (and that was 2008), “At this point there are no laws or regulations for this kind of thing and the bizarre thing is that the Catholic Church and other traditional stem-cell opponents think this technology is great when in reality it could in the end become one of their biggest nightmares. It is quite possible that the real legacy of this whole new programming technology is that it will be introducing the era of designer babies.”

Cloning, human embryonic stem cell research, the use of illicit biological materials in research, IVF, designer babies—all are immoral, unethical, and certainly not pro-life. Rather than praise and prizes, such research ought rightly be given condemnation.

Alfred Nobel’s last will specified that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind.” Would Nobel be surprised at what we now consider the “greatest benefit”?

Leslie Tignor is a member of the American Life League public policy department and the director of ALL’s Associate program.