By John Connolly

LONDON, December 18, 2007 ( – The pioneer of the newest stem cell technique hailed as solving the ethical problems with embryonic stem cell research expressed his fears that scientists would use the method to create a human being with only one biological parent in an interview with The Telegraph on December 13.

Shinya Yamanaka, a professor at Kyoto University and one of the two researchers who pioneered the “reprogramming” of human skin cells into stem cell replacements, said his breakthroughs could have dire implications for the rest of reproductive science.

“In theory our work means that you can generate germ cells (eggs and sperm), which could be very good news for the treatment of infertility,” he said. “But what if somebody took those sperm and eggs from a single person and fertilized them? The result would be something very strange and dangerous. At this time there are no guidelines or rules that would prevent this.”

“These things could be done somewhere by rogue scientists, but not in the UK where all research is strictly regulated,” said Chris Shaw, a professor at King’s College, London. “It is going to be immensely difficult to achieve fertilization and implantation in a woman.”

A spokesman for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the UK’s regulator overseeing practice in fertility treatment and embryo research, said that it was “legally a grey area,” relying on laws to be introduced next summer to ban the practice.

Ian Wilmut, a professor at Edinburgh University and the researcher who gave rise to Dolly, the first cloned sheep, was quoted as saying he’s abandoning his cloning efforts to adopt the skin cell pluripotent approach.

“The work which was described from Japan of using a technique to change cells from a patient directly into stem cells without making an embryo has got so much more potential,” Wilmut said, according to BBC News. “Even though it’s only been described for the mouse, when we were considering which option to pursue, whether to clone or whether to copy the work in Japan, we decided to copy the work in Japan.”

The research breakthroughs, announced in July and published in November, have been hailed by much of the pro-life movement as an alternative to the unethical use of human embryos in medical stem cell research. However, others are expressing concerns about where this will all lead given that many scientists involved in this work are known to not have any concerns about the ethical dimensions of destructive embryonic research or cloning.

James Thomson, a biologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the second scientist to develop the new skin cell pluripotent method, thinks that human embryo research should continue.

“What I hope will not happen is that everybody says, ‘See? We don’t have to do embryonic stem cell research now,’” Thomson said in an interview with MSNBC ( “Just like Dolly was our inspiration to do the screening in the first place, we could not have successfully done the screening without the existence of human embryonic stem cells. The Japanese group, Dr. Yamanaka’s group, used four genetic factors in mice. They had tried the same [mouse] embryonic stem cell culture with human material and it didn’t work. Then they used human embryonic stem cell conditions that had been developed at my lab and other labs.”

Thomson emphasized the reliance on human embryonic stem cells in the process of finding the new pluripotent skin cell method, and sees embryonic stem cell research as instrumental to further breakthroughs.

“In our research, we actually used human embryonic stem cells as part of the screening process,” he said. “So the research itself on human embryonic stem cells led to the next finding about pluripotent cells.”

Thomson said that he never believed cloning could be used to develop new therapies.

“Mainly, it’s just hugely inefficient and terribly expensive,” he said.

Thomson hopes that pluripotent cells could serve the purpose that cloning research did, but does not think that cloning research should be abandoned either.

“This may not be the end of the story,” he said. “These pluripotent cells may not be perfectly like embryonic stem cells. We don’t know yet. But I do think this is the path that people are going to follow now.”

See previous coverage:

Ethical New Stem Cell Method Used to Cure Sickle Cell Anaemia in Mice

Japanese Breakthrough Prompts Germany to Increase Adult Stem Cell Funding

Japanese Team May Have Found Stem Cell “Holy Grail”