By Hilary White
TORONTO, November 21, 2007 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Two scientific studies published in peer-review journals have made headlines around the world with the announcement that embryo-like stem cells can be made out of skin cells. The announcement has media and commentators speculating that the discovery will end the demand for human embryo cloning and “spare” embryos from in vitro fertilization treatments.
The studies, published within a week of each other in the scientific journals Science and Cell, are by two teams of researchers working on the same problem from Japan and Wisconsin who say they have reprogrammed mature human skin cells to revert to a “pluripotent” state.
The announcement comes at the same time one of the world’s leading proponents of human cloning, Britain’s Dr. Ian Wilmut, has told media that he intends to drop his efforts to create cloned human embryos by the nuclear transfer method in favour of the new technique. Wilmut is famous as the creator of Dolly the cloned sheep in 1997.
The news was first revealed in July this year by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who told a meeting of scientists that his team had developed a technique of introducing four proteins which “reprogram” the cell’s nuclear DNA inducing it to revert to a pluripotent state. The method reverses the chemical process by which a cell is “differentiated” to become a particular kind of tissue, such as a skin cell.
Yamanaka told the London Times in an interview, “Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I’ve never worked with either.”
The news made international headlines after Yamanaka’s paper was published online in the journal Cell. Over 300 news stories appeared online within 2 hours of the publication. Yamanaka’s findings were reproduced by a team of scientists working from the University of Wisconsin. Those findings were published online Tuesday in the journal Science.
The article in Cell describes how the Japanese team took cells from the face of a 36-year-old woman and the connective tissue of a 69-year-old man and induced them to become pluripotent. The study’s authors describe the cells as “essentially the same” as embryonic stem cells. The cells in the lab were able to produce all the main tissue types in the body, including muscle, gut, cartilage, neurons and heart cells.
Yamanaka’s team, however, continued to stress what they call the need for continued embryo research and cautioned that there are still problems with their method that need to be solved. The viruses employed in the process can cause mutations in the cell that can lead to cancer, and one of the genes itself also has a tendency to cause tumors.
The scientists called the cells induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells. When injected into mice, the iPS cells formed tumors containing a jumble of body parts.
Despite this, pro-life observers are cautiously supportive of the claim citing the “amazing possibilities” if the technique does indeed offer a method of creating embryo-like stem cells without loss of human life. They caution, however, that further efforts must be undertaken to ensure that human embryos are not created by the technique.
“The amazing possibilities that have been provided by the Creator to heal ourselves continues to astound scientists in every generation,” said Jim Hughes, vice-president of International Right to Life and National President of Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), a national pro-life group in Canada.
“Now more scientists have come on board calling this new method, ‘direct reprogramming’ the greatest invention since flying”, said Hughes.
Dr. John Shea, medical advisor to Campaign Life Coalition told LifeSiteNews.com yesterday, “Yamanaka’s work, essentially somatic cell genetic engineering, is a very complex subject. The issue is whether the pluripotent stem cells created by the technique will always remain merely stem cells and cannot become embryos.”
Richard Doerflinger, secretariat for pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington said, “It’s a win-win.”
“The scientists can get all the benefits they think they might get from embryonic stem cells, and the rest of us can applaud and support it,” he said.
Read related LifeSiteNews.com coverage:
Japanese Team May Have Found Stem Cell “Holy Grail”
Dolly Creator’s Announcement of No More Human Cloning Raises Some Concerns