Published in the 12 December 2007 edition of Christian Renewal Magazine.
Two recent news articles described major developments in the area of stem cell research. The first, an Associate Press (AP) story published on 20 November, reported, “Scientists have made ordinary skin cells take on the chameleon-like powers of embryonic stem cells, a startling breakthrough that might someday deliver the medical payoffs of embryo cloning without the controversy.”
This new technique, developed by researchers in Japan and the United States, is called “direct programming.” Scientists collect skin cells from a volunteer, then use viruses to introduce new genetic material into the cell. The new genetic material overrides the cell’s existing DNA, and it begins to function like a stem cell.
One of the researchers who developed direct programming, James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is quoted as saying, “People didn’t know it would be this easy. Thousands of labs in the United States can do this, basically tomorrow.”
The AP article quotes Dr. Robert Lanza, chief science officer of Advanced Cell Technology, as saying, “This work represents a tremendous scientific milestone – the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers’ first airplane. It’s a bit like turning lead into gold.”
Stem cells considered valuable for medical research because of their ability to become into any type of cell in the human body. Newly fertilized embryos are composed entirely of stem cells, which in time develop into the various components of a mature human body.
Stem cell research involving the creation and destruction of embryos has caused been condemned by those who believe that human life begins at conception. The most widely used stem cell production method is called “nuclear transfer.”
In a nuclear transfer procedure, the nucleus of an egg cell, which contains its genetic material, is removed and replaced with the nucleus of another cell, usually an embryonic stem cell. The egg cell then essentially becomes an embryonic stem cell, one which could mature into a fully grown human being if given the proper conditions.
Objections to nuclear transfer rise because of the procedure’s very low success rate – well over 90% of the cells created die, leading some to charge that it carelessly handles human life. As an alternative to nuclear transfer, however, direct programming would provide the medical research community with an abundance of stem cells while satisfying the reservations of the pro-life community.
In addition, direct programming is significantly more cost-effective and efficient than nuclear transfer. Also, since stem cells created by direct programming come from the patient’s own body, there is no risk that they would be rejected by that person’s autoimmune system.
A related article, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 16 November, reported that Prof. Ian Wilmut of the University of Edinburgh, who created the world’s first cloned animal, Dolly the Sheep, has publicly abandoned nuclear transfer in favor of direct reprogramming. Prof. Wilmut has gone on record as saying that direct programming is a superior means of creating stem cells, which can in turn be used to research treatments for such serious illnesses as heart disease, Parkinson’s, muscular degeneration, and blindness.
Prof. Wilmut admits that his motivation for changing his method, despite his earlier success with nuclear transfer, is mostly practical; direct reprogramming provides stem cells at a significantly cheaper cost and with vastly greater degree of efficiency. However, he also recognizes that direct reprogramming is also “easier to accept socially” than its alternatives.
As the science of stem cell research has developed, the facts concerning its practice have unfortunately been too often clouded by misinformation and politicization. For example, those reporting on the progress of stem cell research, both in the scientific community and in the media, have often failed to properly nuance between its various kinds and the practical and moral considerations of each development. This misinformation might at times be caused by the technical nature of the subject, but in some instances it is more caused by the ideological commitments of the reporter.
Political figures have obscured the matter by using stem cell research as a means of appealing to different groups of voters, either the pro-life community or the seriously ill. Too often oversimplifications and misinformation abound when things of a highly technical nature get sucked into the arena of politics.
The pro-life movement has at times misunderstood the difference between embryonic stem cell research, in which human embryos are created and destroyed, and alternative stem cell research methods that offer genuine medical promise but in no way threaten human life. Consequently, it has sometimes wrongly condemned stem cell research as a whole.
If Prof. Wilmut’s abandonment of nuclear transfer in favor of direct programming indicates a wider trend in the scientific community – and indications are that this is so – then perhaps stem cell research will sidestep some of these ethical and political issues and be resolved in a way that satisfies all involved.