Stem Cell Research: More Interesting Developments

I was very intrigued by a few news reports that crossed my "e-mail desk" this week. I guess that’s how you have to view e-mail these days – few write you a real letter anymore, and everyone who does send e-mail wants a response immediately. Well, in my case, they have to wait because this granny is going to take her time. But I wanted to share these interesting developments in the field of stem cell research.

You may remember that in February, a group of scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles did a surprising thing:

Led by scientists Kathrin Plath and William Lowry, UCLA researchers used genetic alteration to turn back the clock on human skin cells and create cells that are nearly identical to human embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to become every cell type found in the human body. Four regulator genes were used to create the cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS cells… The UCLA study confirms the work first reported in late November of researcher Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University and James Thompson [sic] at the University of Wisconsin.

In June of 2007, Professor Dianne Irving raised a red flag regarding the Yamanaka and Thomson studies, and her concerns were based on the absence of all the facts needed to make a proper judgment with regard to ethics:

Considering the enormous stakes involved, it would seem that it is incumbent upon scientists involved in especially ethically sensitive research to be as open and detailed in their publications as possible. The trend, however, seems to be to camouflage and dilute the scientific details as much as possible — not only in order to evade professionally appropriate questions from their scientific peers, but also to evade the very questions that society and ethics have traditionally required of all scientists. Rather than use and report the accurate scientific facts, it would seem that scientists prefer to secure their successes by using false and misleading manufactured "scientific" terms, verbal hype, and empty promises. Even the most basic requirements of research ethics appear to have been abandoned, including the required use of the most accurate and reliable scientific facts, as well as the "denial" of the age-old dictum that it is simply wrong to purposefully kill innocent human beings – regardless of their stage of development, ethnicity, culture, degree of illness, etc., and regardless of whether or not their destruction could be of benefit to other human beings. Needless to say, even the most desperate of sick patients should not be exposed to "therapeutic" research or clinical trials when such participation unwittingly puts them into serious danger of harm and even death. One even wonders how such patients could give legally valid "informed consent".

We would all obviously welcome a viable scientific and ethical resolution to the divisive politics of human embryo and fetal research that has consumed us for so many years. These iPS studies, however, do not appear to be that solution.

Dr. Irving’s concerns about the Yamanaka and Thomson studies were later validated when, early this year, Dr. Theresa Deisher, an internationally renowned expert in the field of adult stem cell therapies and regenerative medicine, wrote, "A close inspection of the two published papers revealed that cells from an electively aborted fetus were used in the work, and therefore it cannot be considered moral."

Indeed, this statement by William Lowry, one of the UCLA study's lead scientists, clearly illustrates the need for caution about the ethics involved in this research as well: "It is important to remember that our research does not eliminate the need for embryo-based human embryonic stem cell research, but rather provides another avenue of worthwhile investigation."

The next bit of interesting news I discovered is that the Harvard Stem Cell Institute’s George Daley, who once warned that reprogramming stem cells was "extremely high-risk," is now saying that he and his fellow researchers have used reprogrammed adult stem cells to produce cell lines for 10 diseases, including muscular dystrophy, juvenile diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. However, because this research likewise involves the reprogramming of adult stem cells, its methodology requires further scrutiny to ensure that it did not entail the use aborted fetal or embryonic material.

Thus, because of what was discovered about the original adult stem cell reprogramming research, I always approach new supposedly non-embryonic stem cell developments with hesitancy these days, but it does at least appear that in the next case, there are promising new findings that did not involve the use of aborted fetal or embryonic material.

This study touts the use of stem cells obtained from a baby’s amniotic fluid and placenta to literally create liver, pancreatic, nerve and kidney tissue. The stem cells used are readily available at birth. The lead researcher in this study, Dr. Anthony Atala, once told an interviewer regarding amniotic fluid stem cells, "Actually, the fluid is chockfull of cells, because the embryo is constantly shedding cells. But we were looking for a stem cell population, a cell that we could derive to become other things that would be nimble. And that particular cell makes up about 1 percent of the cells in the fluid and the placenta."

Because the stem cells found in the placenta and the amniotic fluid are so "nimble," Dr. Atala explained, the cells can easily be driven to become different tissues. He may have come upon a genuinely ethical solution to the ethical quagmire created by scientists who are less than fully forthcoming about their studies or are discovered to be using immoral means. Only time will tell.

But the encouraging news is that some scientists are aware of the despicable nature of research that kills one set of human beings to possibly benefit another, and they are at least searching for ethical ways to reach the same end. Let us pray that their work continues to progress, that one day soon scientists are focused on the full truth of their work and that we stop talking about ways to bend the truth.