Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Candidates: Wake Up to Bio-Science Advances!

Michelle Kirtley


October 10, 2008

Over the course of the summer, a series of groundbreaking publications have vaulted the field of stem-cell research forward along paths that are ethical and responsible.

Last year, researchers successfully reprogrammed human skin cells back to a primitive, embryonic-like state. These cells, called iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells) mimicked embryonic stem cells by every criterion tested, but were obtained from adult skin cells without harming or destroying embryos. This summer, researchers at Columbia and Harvard universities built on that work, demonstrating for the first time (with Lou Gehrig’s disease) that disease-specific iPS cells could be created from individual patients, again without involving human embryos.

Also this summer, another lab at Harvard announced that using the same technique, iPS cell lines had been created from patients with Type I diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Down’s syndrome, and two different forms of muscular dystrophy. These cell lines, although unsuitable for transplantation into human patients, can be used to study the progression of these debilitating diseases and screen for new therapies. In all, over 21 different disease-specific iPS cell lines have been created.

The creation of disease-specific stem-cell lines marks an important step towards achieving the promise of regenerative medicine, and that alone would have made for an historic summer. Yet just a few short weeks later, Doug Melton, also at Harvard, stunned the scientific world by announcing that he had transformed adult support cells in a mouse pancreas into insulin-secreting β-cells without ever removing the cells from the mouse! In other words, a simple injection into the pancreas of mice with diabetes transformed one adult cell type into one that could make needed insulin. No Petri dishes, no fears of immune rejection, no embryos, no stem cells, no cloning. Melton has brought us one step closer to what many have called the Holy Grail of regenerative medicine: inducing the body to heal itself by directly reprogramming one cell type into another.

Much remains before this groundbreaking research can be translated into humans. But the progress here is astounding. Contrast this with the progress made cloning a human embryo. In the 12 years since Dolly the Sheep was cloned, only one lab has successfully and verifiably cloned a human embryo. Cloning advocates have long insisted that cloning is necessary to achieve two central aims of regenerative medicine: creation of disease-specific stem-cell lines for research, and creation of patient-specific stem cells for transplantation. Yet both goals were reached this summer with the iPS protocol, rendering any supposed medical imperative for cloning obsolete.

Sadly, Congress is often slow to wake up to scientific realities. Despite the advances made this summer, embryonic stem-cell advocates on Capitol Hill are again preparing legislation that would overturn President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. Sen. Barack Obama has promised that if elected president he would reverse President Bush’s policy without legislation. Yet all of the amazing work this summer was done with the president’s restrictions in place. In fact, because the reprogramming technique does not involve the human embryo at all, much of the work with iPS cells has been funded by the federal government.

If patients were the only consideration, the debate would be over, because science has provided a consensus path out of the political stalemate. But since the focus on patients has long been a smokescreen for the more fundamental issue of whether government should place moral boundaries on the scope of scientific inquiry, Congress is unlikely to declare a truce on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research any time soon.

— Michelle C. Kirtley, Ph.D.
     Science Policy Analyst


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”