STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Moral theologian Father Thomas Berg is praising the work of Shinya Yamanaka, the co-winner of this year's Nobel Prize in medicine, for helping to “put human embryonic stem-cell research largely out of business.”
Yamanaka and John Gurdon, researchers in cell biology, were awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discoveries about the generation of stem cells.
Gurdon is a professor at Cambridge University, and Yamanaka is at Kyoto University. They will share the $1.2-million prize.
“Yamanaka will be remembered in history as the man who put human embryonic stem-cell research largely out of business, motivated by reflection on the fact that his own daughters were once human embryos,” Father Berg, professor of moral theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., told Catholic News Agency Oct. 8.
While much research in the field of cell biology can be a “double-edged sword,” Father Berg pointed out that pluripotent stem cells “can be used in morally licit ways” and that Yamanaka's research has “steered the field away from a much more aggressive and morally abhorrent use of human embryonic stem cells.”
Gurdon's research was conducted in 1962 and showed that it is possible to reverse the specialization of cells. He removed a nucleus from a frog’s intestinal cell and placed it into a frog's egg cell that had its nucleus taken out.
That egg cell was then able to develop into a typical tadpole, and his work was the basis for later research into cloning.
Until Gurdon's findings, it was believed that cell development could only happen in one direction and that a mature cell nucleus could never become immature and pluripotent. A cell is called pluripotent if it can develop into any type of cell in the body.
Building on Gurdon's work, Yamanaka published a paper in 2006 demonstrating that intact, mature cells can become immature stem cells. He inserted genes into mouse cells that reprogrammed those cells so that they became stem cells.
These reprogrammed cells are pluripotent. Yamanaka's breakthrough opened the door to studying disease and developing diagnosis and treatments.
Since this technique can produce a stem cell from any cell, it provides an alternative to embryonic stem cells, which are derived from destroyed human embryos.
“There is every potential for the morally licit use of the technique developed by Dr. Yamanaka — cell reprogramming. No part of the process need involve ethically tainted source cells,” said Father Berg.
Though Catholic ethicists in this field must “evaluate with caution,” he said, “the upshot is, it has pretty much put human embryonic stem cell research out of business.”
The Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community announced that this “is an important milestone in recognizing the key role that non-embryonic stem cells play in the development of new medical therapies as alternatives to human embryonic stem cells.”
The announcement of the prize contrasts the success achieved in using non-embryonic stem cells with the disappointing results from embryonic stem cells. The commission's statement noted that “recently GeronCorp., the world’s leading embryo-research company, announced it was closing down its stem-cell program.”
Father Berg said that “although tissues developed by this process (cell reprogramming) are not quite ready for robust human trials, much progress continues to be made.”
It is hoped that this technique could someday lead to treatments in which a person's own cells are reprogrammed into organs that could replace any failing or damaged system.