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It looks like the argument over embryonic stem cells is finally over. It will be if the secular press and a great number of politicians are willing to look and listen, even briefly, to the scientific happenings of the last six months. To read most of the secular press, one gets the impression that human embryonic stem cells contain within themselves the secrets of an amazing number of cures for human injuries and diseases. Just give them enough time and money and they will present to us a cornucopia of a new world of medical miracles. Based on these rosy predictions, huge amounts of money have been appropriated to fund this needed investigation, i.e. three billion dollars in California and other major sums elsewhere. Some time has now passed, and to date almost no curative discoveries in animals have materialized and a sum total of zero cures have been achieved for humans.
Needless to say, any attentive person has certainly been aware of a continuing chain of reports on the benefits available through adult stem cells and those obtained from the umbilical cord and placenta. Hardly a week goes by without hearing of another advance of using adult stem cells in humans. However, a majority of those in the US Congress and many other legislative bodies seem to have turned a deaf ear to the adult stem cell progress, or at least have continued to place their absolute trust in the much ballyhooed potential for embryonic stem cells.
The three strikes against the use of embryonic stem cells in humans have been available for anyone to see and are worth renewing:
1) The moral objection is obvious. Human embryonic stem cells are obtained by killing a five-day-old living human embryo and extracting the cells from within that tiny forming body. For many, this moral objection is totally governing.
2) These cells are foreign tissue if implanted in a human. The embryo has a different DNA and cells extracted from this tiny body will probably be rejected by the recipient body, just as a transplanted kidney would be. The counter argument has been that these are so primitive that they will not be rejected – a fact not proven. And, that if we clone these embryos, then most of the rejection potential will be neutralized. Again, this is an unproven claim.
3) These cells placed in animal bodies frequently form tumors. They tend to grow uncontrollably into many different cellular types, which may be malignant and fatal to the recipient. Their response has been that there must be an answer for this if only research continues. And so the clamor for using your tax money for further research on embryonic stem cells continues.
But now we have a startling and a very welcome development. In the last six months there has been a series of scientific breakthroughs that probably have rendered all of the above arguments moot.
The first was in November. There was an announcement in two scientific journals that top level researchers, one in Japan and one in Wisconsin, had found a new method of obtaining embryonic stem cells. They were able to reprogram ordinary adult skin cells to create “induced pluripotent stem cells” which are the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. Dr. James Thomson of the Wisconsin team, who had first discovered stem cells a few years ago and has been a pioneer in continuing research since, stated that these cells “meet the defining criteria for pluripotent human embryonic stem cells.” The method that he and the Japanese scientist, Professor Yamanaka, used is efficient and cost effective. The skin cells used are those of the patient himself, and therefore these new pluripotent cells, re-implanted in this original body will not be rejected – for they are the same DNA as the patient’s. This eliminates the tissue rejection problem. This also eliminates the moral question of killing five-day-old embryos to obtain these cells. An initial criticism was that the cells used to date have been fetal skin cells. This problem has been eliminated by currently using adult skin cells.
Scientific breakthroughs, such as this, are commonly viewed with some suspicion and hesitancy by the medical community until they are replicated by other scientists. Happily, we have been blessed by this confirmation happening rather promptly. Scientists at Harvard University have repeated studies similar to the Wisconsin and Japanese ones and found them legitimate. Their report is that this new approach is “not a fluke,” but a legitimate method of reducing the need for killing human embryos to advance science. Another medical center at UCLA in California, using the same technique, has also replicated these findings. They have reported their new stem cells to be “virtually indistinguishable from human embryonic stem cells.” It is noted that both of these new studies have used adult skin cells.
It would seem that a number of the barriers have fallen. The moral issue of killing five-day-old human embryos is moot if you use the patient’s own cells rather than the cells of a different human embryo. The problem of tissue rejection is solved if you use the patient’s own cells to produce these new cells and then return them to his body. However, there was a third major problem, and that was the proclivity to form tumors. Would these new cells have the same problem as the cells from an embryo?
We now have heard, just in the last few weeks, of a further remarkable advance. Professor Yamanaka, the same scientist who did one of the first two reports above, has just announced that his team has found a way to grow these induced pluripotent cells without triggering tumor growth. He has successfully avoided tumor growth for six months now in the mice he is currently treating with these induced pluripotent stem cells. Again, this will need to be continued and replicated by other legitimate scientists, but assuming that it is, it looks now like the last major barrier to the use of these very primitive cells has been eliminated. If this is true, many of the rosy predictions held out for embryonic stem cells may now come true using these new pluripotent cells.
In the last few years, we have seen remarkable and heartening discoveries and progress using adult stem cells. Will these new cells add to the progress already made by adult stem cells in curing human conditions? Is it possible that these new cells may even be capable of doing a better job than adult stem cells? Stay tuned.
It would certainly seem that a new era is dawning. Let’s pray to Almighty God that this will be true.