You don’t see much of the old embryonic stem cell hype anymore. Oh, once in a while, some clueless journalist tries to reinflate the balloon. For example, a recent article in Fortune lamented the poor economic outlook for embryonic stem cell companies. From, “The Great Stem Cell Dilemma:”
To be clear, the earliest stem cell therapies are almost certainly years from distribution. But so much progress has been made at venerable research institutions that it now seems possible to honestly discuss the possibility of a new medical paradigm emerging within a generation. Working primarily with rodents in preclinical trials, MDs and Ph.D.s are making the paralyzed walk and the impotent virile. A stem cell therapy for two types of macular degeneration recently restored the vision of two women. Once they were blind. Now they see! Some experts assert that AMD could be eradicated within a decade. Other scientists are heralding a drug-free fix for HIV/AIDS.
That is sooo 2004. Much of the above litany involved non embryonic stem cell research. For example, HIV studies in humans are showing great promise using stem cells contained in bone marrow. Meanwhile, adult stem cell research human trials—now numbering in the thousands—have shown very promising results for diseases and disabilities ranging from spinal cord injury, to multiple sclerosis, to heart disease.
In contrast, despite spending billions in public and private investments, embryonic stem cell research remains moribund. At present, there are only three tiny human safety trials using embryonic stem cells for a degenerative eye condition being conducted in the entire world. There was a fourth, sponsored by Geron Corporation—an experiment to treat acute spinal cord injury that made international headlines. But it was canceled after only a year and the company abandoned embryonic stem cell research altogether. (see link)
There is even more good news to report on the ethical stem cell front than the adult successes recited above. Embryonic-like stem cells can now be obtained in unlimited supply—and without destroying a single embryo.
Here’s the story: When Shinya Yamanaka visited an embryonic stem cell researcher and looked at embryos under a microscope that were due to be destroyed, he thought of his daughters. That insight would soon change science history.
At the time, scientists believed pluripotent cells could only be obtained from embryos. (Pluripotency refers to the ability of a stem cell to become any type of tissue in the body, seen by scientists as the “gold standard” for regenerative medical research.) But ESCR was only the entry point. The real goal was human cloning.
Here’s why: Because embryonic stem cells derived from IVF-produced embryos might be rejected by a patient’s immune system—and because researchers wanted to use ES cells to study diseases and test drugs—scientists wanted to create human embryos that were genetically identical to specific patients. They thought that would require therapeutic cloning, e.g., manufacturing embryos from patients with diseases using the same cloning process that led to Dolly the sheep, and then destroying the embryos in order to obtain their stem cells.
That would be an ethical Armageddon, the first time in history that human life was intentionally created for the specific goal of being destroyed and used like a corn crop ripe for the harvest. Once we started down that road, it wouldn’t stop with early embryos! No wonder embryonic stem cell research was such a cultural flashpoint.
That was the state of the controversy when Yamanaka got down to work. Using knowledge derived from animal cloning, Yamanaka decided to see if he could “reprogram” normal skin cells and change them into pluripotent stem cells. He succeeded, inventing what are now known as “induced pluripotent stem cells.” It was biological alchemy, like turning lead into gold.
The news gets even better. Induced pluripotent stem cells are now being tailor made from specific patients, changed into other kinds of cells, and then used to study disease models and perform drug testing—precisely what scientists said they hoped to do with human therapeutic cloning. Think about it: No creating human embryos. No destroying human embryos. No cloning. And since cloning requires a human egg for each attempt, no putting women at potentially serious health risks in the process required to harvest them. Perhaps even better: Scientists are now trying to reprogram skin cells directly into other types, skipping the stem cell stage altogether.
And now, the Japanese scientist has won the highest of accolades for his work developing an ethical means of obtaining pluripotent stem cells; the Nobel Prize.
Even strong proponents of human cloning and embryonic stem cell research are applauding. For example, utilitarian bioethicist, Julian Savulescu was quoted in the Telegraph stating: “Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all. He deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but a Nobel Prize for Ethics.” This may be the first and last time I agree with Julian Savulescu.
So, bravo, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka! You proved that good ethics and good science go together like cereal and milk.