The rapidly evolving landscape of stem-cell research can make the field difficult to follow. New technologies crop up on a weekly basis, complete with novel acronyms and cryptic names that seem more designed to confuse than to enlighten. As a result, the scientific debate over the usefulness or “necessity” to experiment on cells obtained via embryo-destructive research is constantly shifting.
Yesterday’s arguments are made obsolete by today’s advances. What was once deemed impossible becomes reality. It is not easy keeping score.
Two recent reports illustrate how quickly matters can shift in this field.
The first report came from researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University. These researchers were able to successfully clone a primate and derive embryonic stem cells from the clone, a feat that seemed to give a transient boost to those who advocate embryo-destructive research.
The researchers reported that they had successfully taken a nucleus from a skin cell of an adult monkey, transplanted it into a prepared egg, and generated a cloned embryo. The embryo was then killed in order to obtain embryonic stem cells, which were then successfully maintained in the lab.
The fact that it is possible to clone primates makes it likely that so-called “therapeutic” cloning eventually could be done in humans — creating human clones in order to kill them and harvest their stem cells to treat a variety of diseases.
For years, researchers had been perplexed by the inability to generate primate clones. Some had even argued that cloning primates would be impossible.
While we now know that it is possible, the current cloning process described by the researchers is quite inefficient, as only two embryonic cell lines were produced from more than 300 eggs.
In addition, the researchers are not really sure what distinguishes the successes from the failures in their cloning attempts.
But these facts didn’t stop embryo-destructive research advocates such as Robert Lanza, head of a California-based cloning research company, from jumping in with both feet.
“We have it working with primates. Now let us go into humans,” he boldly proclaimed.
Lanza’s sentiment barely had time to gain momentum before it was drowned out by another technological advance that many scientists once deemed impossible.
Given the difficulties of generating embryonic stem cells via cloning, researchers have begun to look for alternative sources of embryonic stem cells.
One avenue that has looked promising in recent years is called somatic cell reprogramming, in which normal adult cells are manipulated such that they, in a sense, go backward in development and regain the properties of embryonic stem cells. Such cells have been called “induced pluripotent stem cells” (or iPS cells). Researchers in Japan have been able to reprogram adult mouse cells with some success, and less than a week after the news about primate cloning broke, the same researchers, along with collaborators at the University of Wisconsin, reported that they had successfully done this reprogramming with human skin cells.
The cells they obtained act like embryonic stem cells in that they appear to be able to give rise to all the various tissue types that make up the human body. This is a major breakthrough — cells that behave like embryonic stem cells but can be obtained without destroying a single embryo.
The major drawback of the process they employed is that the manner in which the cells are reprogrammed makes them susceptible to becoming cancerous — an obvious problem if you want to use them therapeutically.
This drawback is not a showstopper, though, as researchers have proposed numerous ways around this problem, some of which are currently being tested. If these alternative methods work, it would seem that we may have a technological solution to an ethical impasse.
The supposed need to obtain stem cells via the destruction of embryos could be rendered obsolete if similar cells can be obtained via direct reprogramming. On its face, there seems to be no advantage that embryo-destructive research has over these reprogrammed cells.
Both techniques allow for the production of stem cells that could be genetically matched to a specific patient. Both techniques allow for the production of virtually any type of human cell, a property that is useful for both therapeutic applications as well as for basic research into human development and disease.
However, only one technique, reprogramming, which has been shown to work in humans, does not require the risky prospect of harvesting large numbers of eggs from women, and does not involve the killing of human embryos. On the scientific front and on the ethical front, reprogrammed cells appear superior.
They appear so superior that Ian Wilmut, the scientist who brought us Dolly the cloned sheep, has stated that he is giving up working on cloning human embryos and plans to focus on reprogramming of adult cells instead.
He is doing this not because he has had some type of ethical revelation, but rather because the science dictates that this is the most prudent manner in which to proceed.
In fact, the reprogramming technique is so simple and easy (as compared to human cloning), that many more labs will likely get involved in the field over the next few years.
In a field where research already moves at a breakneck pace, more researchers will only give it added fuel.
There has been almost universal praise for this new research, both by the scientific community and by the Church. But will this technological advance solve the ethical problem? Does a moral method of obtaining embryonic-like stem cells mean that we as a society will turn away from embryo-destructive research? Not necessarily.
The problem is that many researchers have staked their lives and reputations on the success of embryo-destructive research, and simply expecting all of them to pack up shop (like Wilmut) when alternative sources of embryonic stem cells arrive is a bit naïve.
After years of working on a project they have fought tooth and nail to mainstream, many are convinced that we still need to proceed down both paths.
This attitude is evident in the press coverage these stem-cell breakthroughs garner. In the case of the first successful primate clone, which was used to obtain embryonic stem cells, articles describing the new research did not stress that other sources of stem cells were being pursued or advocate that we must still support research that does not destroy embryos.
One the other hand, most articles describing the breakthrough in the reprogramming of human cells included statements pointing out that we still need to continue embryo-destructive research despite this success and that the cloning approach still has much to offer.
With regularity, these articles end with a quote from a leading researcher who stresses that even though these breakthroughs are impressive, it is absolutely critical to the advancement of science, Western civilization and humanity that we continue to pursue embryo-destructive research.
Why is this? It seems that another deeper issue is at stake here rather than merely what we are all being told — the pursuit of cures for debilitating diseases. If cures were indeed the only issue, the press and those for whom they provide cover would not be so intent on promoting one type of research — embryo-destructive research — over another type, particularly given the fact that both can achieve the same ends.
For many in the debate though, the issue has already been cast as a battle between science and religion in which any type of acquiescence to religious believers would be unthinkable.
They see religious believers as bumbling interlopers into the great scientific project of our century. So even though we can produce embryonic-like stem cells via moral means, to do so exclusively may give appearances that we as a society have let religious believers impose limitations on science.
In their minds, the critical point in the debate is to keep “petty” ethical and moral concerns from dictating the means by which science can proceed.
For years, those with this attitude could hide their true colors behind the “let’s just let science find cures” banner. The shifting landscape, though, blows their cover.
While it is not yet clear that these reprogrammed cells will be able to do everything we were once promised that embryonic stem cells could do, it is clear that the real promise for scientific advancement lies in reprogramming.
This new landscape marks a decisive moment, one in which embryo-destructive research advocates must show their true colors. Are they interested in cures, or are they only interested in allowing science to reign free of any ethical impositions?
For those who advocate embryo-destructive research, what they do next will speak volumes.
Daniel Kuebler, Ph.D., is an
assistant professor of biology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.