October 22, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Pro-life advocates are debating the awarding of the Nobel Prize for medicine to Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, the discoverer of induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, with some outright condemning the work and others calling it a boon that will advance ethical medical technology.

In 2007, Yamanaka, a researcher at Kyoto University, published a paper in the journals Nature and Stem Cell announcing that his team had created embryo-like stem cells from the skin cells of mice. The process he developed, using a set of four genes to re-program the cells, was hailed around the world as a possible solution to the unethical use of living human embryos to obtain “pluripotent stem cells” – i.e. cells that can be induced to become any type of tissue in the body.

Until this discovery, the scientific world was largely convinced that adult stem cells were limited and only embryonic stem cells could be malleable enough to produce the many different tissue types needed for medical applications. 

At the news of the announcement from the Swedish Nobel Prize committee, on October 8th, American Life League (ALL) were quick off the mark with a press release condemning the award. The pro-life organization touted the virtues of adult stem cells, while raising concerns about the source of the genes that are being used to re-program the cells. Some pro-life critics have observed that Yamanaka’s team used the now infamous HEK 293 cell line, which was cultured from the kidney cells of a child aborted in 1971, in their research.

“With such complex subject matter, we call for vigilance,” said ALL. “Technical language and prestigious prizes will not hide the truth. To encourage the murder of preborn human beings in order to facilitate scientific research is unethical and criminal.”

Pro-life opinion, however, appears to remain divided, and with Yamanaka’s work being the most cutting-edge of the day, is likely to remain so for some time. While American Life League was condemning the work, E. Christian Brugger, the Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, wrote in the National Catholic Register, “Most any science can be used wrongly, especially if it’s used in ways that harm or destroy human life.

“But since the production of pluripotent stem cells from somatic cells by reprogramming need not involve bringing into existence, experimenting upon or destroying human embryos, iPSC research in itself seems to me to be morally unproblematic.”

Dr. David Prentice, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, and former professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State University, also came out in support of Yamanaka’s research, while adding the caveat that the “gold standard” is still adult stem cell research, with adult stem cells already being successfully used in a variety of treatments.

Meanwhile, some pro-life bloggers strongly criticized Yamanaka for using HEK 293, a stem cell line sold by biomedical suppliers and used widely in the field of biotechnological research. Although the use of the cells in medical research is condemned as unethical by pro-life ethicists, some have argued that the principle of “remote cooperation with evil” by can be applied to the use of treatments and vaccines developed with HEK 293 cells. In February 2009, Bishop Robert Vasa, a strongly pro-life Catholic bishop in Oregon, issued a statement saying that the use of vaccines developed with HEK 293 can be permissible for Catholics to use with the right intention, given the distance in time, or “remoteness,” between their development and the abortion of the child.

Rebecca Taylor, a Technologist in Molecular Biology MB(ASCP), who writes the pro-life Mary Meets Dolly bioethics blog, condemned the use of HEK 293 in Yamanka’s research, but added that she believes “iPSCs themselves are not inherently immoral.”

“Cell lines of illicit origin have been used in developing this technology (and unfortunately are used ubiquitously in many areas of research), and it is the use of those cell line to which we should object, not the iPSCs themselves,” she said.

Dr. Yamanaka’s work has long been welcomed in the broader scientific community as both a major scientific advance, and a way to move beyond the contentious debate over embryonic stem cells. Dr. Ian Wilmut, the cloning expert who created Dolly the world’s first cloned sheep, told British media in 2007 that the discovery would put an end to attempts to create cloned embryos to obtain stem cells which had been problematic for both ethical and practical reasons. He said he would be giving up cloning experiments and instead following up on Dr. Yamanaka’s work

Some pro-life experts were cautiously supportive at the time, saying that more time was needed to examine Dr. Yamanaka’s methods to ensure that unforseen problems did not develop. Dr. Dianne Irving, a bioethics expert at Georgetown University, told LifeSiteNews.com in 2009, “If it can be shown that the research is truly accurately performed and does not involve the use of embryo DNA or foetal material at any stage, then it should be at least given a chance.”

Further examination of the techniques, she said, was required to ensure that the iPS technique does not result in the creation of totipotent stem cells, that is, those that can develop into an embryo. She also was cautious about the use of HEK cells.

Yamanaka’s own explanations of his motives have apparently been mixed. At the time his discovery was published in the journals Nature and Stem Cell, Yamanaka urged other researchers not to stop using embryos for research. However, at the same time, he told the London Times in an interview, “Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I’ve never worked with either.”

In a New York Times interview in 2007, he described looking at an embryo through a microscope at a fertility clinic, “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”

Professor Yamanaka said in 2006 that it was the ethical question that most motivated him to discover the secret to creating pluripotent stem cells from a differentiated cell coming from a patient, a technique that also resolved the immune response problem.

His achievement was hailed this month by Julian Savulescu, director of Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and a utilitarian bioethicist who has vehemently supported the use of living human embryos for research. Savulescu told National Public Radio in the US, “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.”