Scientists in Japan and the United States have found a way of producing stem cells without using human embryos, thus potentially eliminating ethical problems surrounding life-destroying embryonic stem-cell research.

But while the Vatican welcomes the news, it is also treating it with some caution.

Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau, director of research at the Pontifical Academy for Life, spoke about the potentially revolutionary scientific finding.

Does the Vatican consider this research to be a major breakthrough?

There is always a tendency to speak of a breakthrough, but this work of [professor Shinya] Yamanaka started almost four years ago, so I wouldn’t say it’s all that new. You cannot discover something suddenly, it’s a long process.

Yamanaka has been working on particular human patients for sometime. Last year we had a meeting and invited Yamanaka to attend, and this development was already known then.

But it is nevertheless an important development, because this is the only way to get embryonic-like cells in a regular way from particular patients. You can grow these cells and obtain tissues without what is called “therapeutic cloning.” But people forget that in June we already had three articles on the same thing.

But wasn’t that about experiments on mice, whereas now it has been shown to work on human beings?

This concerns human cells: Yes, that’s true. There’s a progression in the latest paper of Yamanaka and James Thomson. They were able to get de-differentiation, their multiplication, which is embryonic-like.

So it confirms earlier findings, but you also have to realize that this is not the end but just the beginning. There’s still a lot more hard work to do.

What you avoid [with this scientific development] is the ethical problem, but you don’t avoid the “double problem” that comes with embryonic stem cells that is the problem of cancer. You cannot use embryonic stem cells just like that, you have to differentiate them. If you inject or put embryonic stem cells on your skin and let them grow, you get cancer.

So this is the first problem. To be able to use these cells, there has to be some kind of scanning process to eliminate all those cells that are not differentiated. We don’t have the means of doing that yet, so there’s a lot of work to do there.

The second thing is that we have to be able to control this embryonic-like stem cell to develop into this or that kind of tissue. Experiments have shown that we can get them to produce [the fundamental germ] layers, but that doesn’t mean we can always obtain these layers in a regular way. So there is a big difference.

So to sum up, this work is very interesting. From an ethical standpoint, it has opened a door, because now we can hope to have embryonic-like cells, and we’ll no longer have to destroy human embryos. So that’s a major point.

It has also opened up possibilities for clinical application — not now, but maybe 10 years from now — which will enable us to obtain cells from a patient, transform these cells to become embryonic-like, and grow them. Maybe then, one month later, we’ll have enough cells to make a therapeutic intervention [to do therapeutic surgery].

Does this mark the beginning of the end of the embryonic stem-cell debate?

I think there will still be a debate. It does make a big change, but people who are willing to use human embryos to extract stem cells or to use embryos in other ways will still say we have a lot of possibilities with these cells. They’ll say we don’t know fully how they work, we have to study the way they are proliferating and differentiating.

Yamanaka himself says his work won’t eliminate the working on stem cells taken from human embryos. So I just ask for a bit of care. Yes it does bring a lot of changes, but it won’t end this kind of competition.

Also this competition has really only been on the political and mass media level rather than the scientific level. At the political level, you have this kind of fighting between two blocs; on the scientific level there’s a difference — you have some scientists who want to use embryos, and this is a problem. But other scientists who work on adult stem cells don’t fight with them.

Some people say this discovery wouldn’t have been possible without embryonic stem-cell research.

No, I don’t agree, because in the field of embryonic stem cells, a lot of work has been done on animals. Really, you don’t always need humans for this research.

People have been jumping immediately to carry out clinical applications, but basic study on the way they are proliferating, the factor of differentiation, all that needs to be more fully studied, and this can be done on animals.

I think we have two kinds of research: One you can do on humans with stem cells, blood stem cells or ways of reprogramming. And the other, studying embryonic stem cells in mice, dogs, monkeys. I should say that using matter related to dogs and monkeys is more expensive than human matter and this is a problem.

Why do some Western governments still insist on funding embryonic stem-cell research?

Governments, politicians, still have ideas generated five, six or 10 years ago, and they don’t change. That is the problem in culture.

From what we know, there will never be any therapeutic cloning. It’s a dream, it doesn’t work, it’s too expensive, but people in politics are still speaking about it.

So in summary, is the new research a scientific breakthrough?

It is, but it means there’s a lot of hard work still before us.

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.