Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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Researchers May 28 announced they had found a safe way to transform skins cells into stem cells.
BY Steve WeatherbeREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON — An international team
of researchers have made a significant improvement on what appears to be an
ethical form of stem-cell research.
Scientists have been able to
“induce” human skin cells into pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which are
considered just as valuable as embryonic stem cells, although they do not
involve the destruction of embryos.
But while the method previously used
viral tissue, which isn’t practicable because it could cause genetic damage to
the patient, the new method uses protein fragments and carries no threat of
genetic damage. It can be used on humans. It is potentially free of many
harmful side effects.
“There’s no embryos involved, no
cloning,” said an American member of the team, Dr. Robert Lanza, who is chief
scientific officer at Advanced Cell Technology and co-author of the report
announcing the discovery in the latest issue of Cell
Stem Cell. “I’ve been trying for 10 years to stay clear of ethical
controversies. And now we’re here.”
In 2006, a Japanese-led team first
reprogrammed skin cells into iPSC that, like embryonic stem cells, could then
be turned into almost any kind of tissue. However, it did so by marrying four
crucial reprogramming genes with part of a virus to get them into skin cells, a
method that carried with it the danger of triggering genetic defects.
According to Lanza, the new research
has demonstrated — in a lab and not yet on humans — a safer method of getting
the genes into skin cells using protein fragments called peptides, which do not
alter the target cell’s genetic structure, unlike viruses, which do.
“We showed our iPS cells could do
all the same tricks as the embryonic stem cell,” said Lanza, who is Catholic.
Indeed, with some applications, like reproducing vascular and retinal tissue,
it seems to do better.
But another Catholic biochemical
researcher says the research is tainted by its use of tissue derived from an
aborted fetal cell line.
“For that reason,” said Theresa
Deisher, founder of Seattle-based Ave Maria Biotech, “I would say that the work
cannot be considered moral.”
Deisher says that researchers could
have done the same research using tissue derived morally and adds that “it
would not be immoral to learn how to do something the right way from observing
my neighbor doing it in a wrong way.”
Father Thomas Berg, director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the
Human Person in New York, said that “99% of Catholic moral theologians disagree
with Dr. Deisher. The main thing here is that this line of research makes
feasible a whole field of treatments in an ethical way without using embryonic
problem, says Deisher, is that the reprogramming genes were packaged in HEK
293, a mass-produced cell line derived from aborted fetal material. HEK 293 is
used for many studies that have no intrinsic link with embryonic stem cells,
but simply because it is cheap and readily available.
Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and a frequent guest on network
TV, predicts that “within 10 years iPSC will make the use of embryonic stem
Lanza said that the Food and Drug
Administration’s permission would be sought for clinical trials on humans to
begin as soon as next year.
Deisher is dubious about the whole
enterprise of iPSC. She says pluripotent stem cells have a tendency to develop
tumors. In studies involving embryonic stem-cell treatments used on animals,
the treatments cause cancerous tumors. In one experiment, 20% of mice who had
embryonic stem cells injected into them to treat Parkinson’s disease developed
Far more promising, in Deisher’s
view, is research on adult stem cells taken from bone marrow.
Deisher says there are 2,000 “moral”
clinical trials under way of treatments using stem cells, and half of these are
using stem cells from bone marrow.
Meanwhile, the science community has
softened its claims about imminent medical treatments using embryonic stem
cells, now that President Obama has reversed his predecessor’s veto on funding.
The Coalition for the Advancement of
Medical Research’s CEO, Amy Comstock Rick, for example, says that embryonic
stem cells will prove useful not so much for treating diseases, but for
studying them. “The idea is that you create Parkinson’s or ALS in a dish so
that you can watch and understand the process of the disease,” she said.
But if Father Berg and Lanza are
right, iPS cells will have rendered this use unnecessary in a decade.
Steve Weatherbe writes from
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