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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Nobel Prize given for ethical--not embryonic--stem cell research

Ethical alternatives to embryo-destroying stem cell research now appear to be winning the day, despite billions of dollars spent on embryonic stem cell research. 
We can thank intrepid scientists and courageous ethicists who dared to challenge the mantra of the scientific and liberal communities, which held that only embryonic stem cells offered the full range of possibilities for research and potential therapies.
At the December 3, 2004 meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics, Council Member Dr. William Hurlbut presented one of the first proposals challenging this mantra, offering the alternative of "Altered Nuclear Transfer." In May 2005, the Council published a white paper entitled, Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells, in which Chairman Dr. Leon Kass noted,
Much of the ethical controversy over stem cells derives from the fact that, until now, the only way to obtain human pluripotent stem cell lines has been to derive them from living human embryos by a process that necessarily destroys the embryos. If a way could be found to derive such stem cell lines without creating and destroying human embryos, a good deal of that ethical controversy would subside.
Such writings may have encouraged objective scientists to explore options challenging their colleague's near-religious devotion to embryonic stem cell research. In December 2007, the New York Times--of all papers--published the following story:
Dr. [Shinya] Yamanaka was an assistant professor of pharmacology doing research involving embryonic stem cells when he made the social call to the clinic about eight years ago. At the friend’s invitation, he looked down the microscope at one of the human embryos stored at the clinic. The glimpse changed his scientific career.
When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two and now a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”
This week, the Nobel Foundation--of all organizations--awarded Dr. Yamanaka a Nobel Prize for his work on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), writing the following:
Shinya Yamanaka discovered ... in 2006, how intact mature cells in mice could be reprogrammed to become immature stem cells. Surprisingly, by introducing only a few genes, he could reprogram mature cells to become pluripotent stem cells, i.e. immature cells that are able to develop into all types of cells in the body. These groundbreaking discoveries have completely changed our view of the development and cellular specialisation. We now understand that the mature cell does not have to be confined forever to its specialised state. Textbooks have been rewritten and new research fields have been established. By reprogramming human cells, scientists have created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy. 
Not long ago, many scientists, politicians and the media used their support for unethical embryonic stem cell research as a wedge issue, proclaiming that soon patients would be hopping out of their wheelchairs if only the Luddites who insisted on ethical alternative research would get out of the way.
Tragically, every dollar spent on embryonic stem cell research diverts critically needed funds away from ethical alternatives, including iPS cells and long-proven adult stem cell research, which is already providing real therapies for real patients.
Not too long ago, many scientists believed in God and saw their mission as discovering and exploring God's design in the natural world, in a way that corresponded with His ethical principles as prescribed in Scripture. Perhaps Dr. Yamanaka's success will encourage a revival of such a perspective, and we can once again begin to trust science to explore--not exploit--the natural order.

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