Good but confusing news on the Stem Cell Front

A reader writes:

As was announced yesterday, two scientists have won the Nobel Prize for their work in reversing matured cells from their differentiated state to an embryonic-like state, creating what are known as “induced pluripotent stem cells.” 100% ethical! A recap is here: Also, unlike embryonic stem cells which have still never cured any diseases, one of the good doctors’ discoveries is going to be put to the test next year in an attempt to reverse blindness.

Since I know you have been reporting on this for years, I figured your other readers might like to know too. I have a lot of hope that our scientific community will be moving away from the destruction of embryos for raw materials (despite, of course, the usual tired protestation that, despite the evidence, everyone just KNOWS that embryonic stem cells are the MOST powerful.)

I’m puzzled by this story. I *hope* it’s good news and given Wesley Smith’s sterling record of reportage I assume it is, but I would really like somebody to explain to me the difference between embryonic stem cells and “embryonic-like” cells. I gather this does not involve the creation of embryos and therefore the destruction of innocent human life. But what *is* being created here? Any bio-geeks out there? Help me, Bio-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope!

UPDATE: Thanks to the invaluable Rebecca Taylor at Mary Meets Dolly I have my answer:

Pluripotent cells are ones that can become most or all of the 200 cell types of the body, but they cannot become other tissues like placenta. So pluripotent cells, alone without further manipulation, cannot implant and grow into a fetus, baby etc. Before Dr. Yamanaka scientists would get pluripotent stem cells from the inner stem cell mass of an embryo. Dr. Yamanaka, realizing that we cannot continue to destroy embryos for stem cells, envisioned a way to reprogram an adult cell back to a pluripotent (hence the embryonic-like) state. Now scientists can take a skin cell, reprogram it back to pluripotency and then grow lung tissue, neurons, or other tissue they want to study. Induced pluripotent stem cells are the perfect alternative to cloning because you get stem cells that are a genetic match to a patient, but without creating and destroying a cloned human embryo. There is some concern that scientists have been able to grow a mouse from just these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) suggesting that induced pluripotent stem cells are just like cloning. But looking closer you find that the scientists had to manipulate some of the iPCs so that they can become the extra-embryo tissues like placenta. So while cloning creates a complete human embryo capable, atleast some percentage of the time, of implanting in a uterus and continuing to grow, reprogramming adult cells back to pluripotency only creates stem cells, not a complete organism. This is why iPSC are being hailed as a major ethical breakthough in stem cell science.

Thanks be to God for you guys being such smart readers! Good news indeed!

  • RS

    Hi Mark,

    “Embryonic-like” roughly translates to “these cells, when observed, appear to have the same properties as embryonic stem cells.”

    Effectively, the scientists who are culturing them can force them to differentiate into a chosen cell type (cardiac cells, liver cells, etc.)

    The ethical concern that arises though is a creation from some lab in Texas (MD Anderson?) where scientists used iPSCs to create a mouse with “two fathers.” But this is not a concern unique to this type of cell so it may be unfair to lump that development in with this joyous news.

  • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

    Mark, you may find this article helpful: http://www.ncbcenter.org/page.aspx?pid=250

  • RS

    And I should say that the raw materials for Yamanaka’s discovery at least were: adult skin cells, DNA containing 4 genes, and a virus to package and deliver that DNA. So it’s essentially skin cells with four genes turned on that would ordinarily be turned off.

    The “feeder cells” that they’re grown on are generally derived from mice.

  • http://ohnimus.wordpress.com Christian Ohnimus

    If I remember correctly from my bioethics class “embryonic-like” cells derived from adult stem cells are somewhat controversial in the Church precisely because some people argue that it blurs the line between embryos and these IPSCs. Do these IPSCs fall under the definition of an embryo or are they tangibly different? For a layperson its hard to say. Some say that they are definitely different (and therefore perfectly legitimate and ethical) while others aren’t so sure. Ultimately, as a controversy, this seems to fall more under the “lets discuss this within the church and employ prudential judgement” category than the “people ignoring church teaching and embracing objective evil” category.

  • RS

    Christian, the problem with that take is that there is no way to fertilize an iPSC; one cannot cause a new human being to grow from one. If that technology is ever developed then yes there will be a major ethical concern. But as of now they’re simply useful as a raw material to substitute for those derived from embryos.

    • http://ohnimus.wordpress.com Christian Ohnimus

      I understand. This is a very new technology though and some bioethicists want to keep an eye on it for a while before fully embracing it.

  • http://www.jillstanek.com Bobby Bambino

    Hey Mark.

    To see the difference, let us see see why human embryonic stem cell research is evil. The reason this is wrong is because when a human being in the embryonic stage has one of his cells (which by definition is an embryonic cell) removed, that causes him to die. We currently have no way to remove a cell from a human being in the embryo stage without killing him. Now it then becomes an interesting question “what if we could remove an embryonic cell from an embryo without killing him?” That might be okay then, although some might argue that this is akin to drawing blood from someone without their permission. But I digress.

    So there really is nothing wrong per say with experimenting on embryonic stem cells. The problem is that teh only way we know how to obtain an embryonic stem cell is by removing them from an embryo which causes the embryo’s death. But it looks like this new research is saying that we can “transform” an adult stem cell into an embryonic stem cell. Since there is no one killed when this stem cell is created (and no one is created and then killed), this seems like a moral action.

  • http://www.marymeetsdolly.com/blog/ Rebecca Taylor

    Pluripotent cells are ones that can become most or all of the 200 cell types of the body, but they cannot become other tissues like placenta. So pluripotent cells, alone without further manipulation, cannot implant and grow into a fetus, baby etc. Before Dr. Yamanaka scientists would get pluripotent stem cells from the inner stem cell mass of an embryo. Dr. Yamanaka, realizing that we cannot continue to destroy embryos for stem cells, envisioned a way to reprogram an adult cell back to a pluripotent (hence the embryonic-like) state. Now scientists can take a skin cell, reprogram it back to pluripotency and then grow lung tissue, neurons, or other tissue they want to study. Induced pluripotent stem cells are the perfect alternative to cloning because you get stem cells that are a genetic match to a patient, but without creating and destroying a cloned human embryo. There is some concern that scientists have been able to grow a mouse from just these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) suggesting that induced pluripotent stem cells are just like cloning. But looking closer you find that the scientists had to manipulate some of the iPCs so that they can become the extra-embryo tissues like placenta. So while cloning creates a complete human embryo capable, atleast some percentage of the time, of implanting in a uterus and continuing to grow, reprogramming adult cells back to pluripotency only creates stem cells, not a complete organism. This is why iPSC are being hailed as a major ethical breakthough in stem cell science.

  • http://raeblog.blogspot.com Rae Stabosz

    I may be wrong, but I thought the Nobel Prize was given for research that’s a few years old, and has already been vetted and applauded by Catholic bio- ethicists.

    • Mark Shea

      Okay. I’m just trying to figure out what the difference between “embryo” and “embryo-like” means. This is news to me.

      • Paul in the GNW

        Embryo-like is non-scientific journalism language that is useless for making real distinctions about what is going on. Ignore that, and focus instead on what scientists and reputable bio-ethicist call these cells which is pluripotent stem cells. The are similar to embryonic stem cells in that they have similar potential but the are not “embryonic like” in the sense that they have anything to do with an embryo. Even the terms “adult stem cells” and “embryonic stem cells” are short hand terms not actual scientific descriptions.

  • Anna

    Can I just say how obnoxious reporting on this is? From the article quoted on the Mary Meets Dolly site:
    “Since the discovery, other scientists have generated iPS cells from humans—a feat which some argue reduces the need for controversial and difficult to acquire embryonic stem cells.”
    “…which “some” argue “reduces” the “need”…” Gah! As if there’s a need for killing embryos, as if that “need” would suddenly be fine if it were “reduced” – they just can’t bring themselves to say why anyone could possibly have a problem with ESCR or that the problem won’t go away just by doing it less often.
    Sorry for the rant, doublespeak just drives me bonkers, especially in a situation like this where they could just say nothing about the debate if they’ve nothing nice (or truthful) to say. My husband was equally annoyed by a radio news report which stated that Yamanaka was “inspired” by ESCR, ignoring the fact that it was a negative inspiration (i.e. wow, these embryos are just like my daughters, better use something *else* for research!) rather than a positive one. (i.e. isn’t ESCR great – what else can we do?)

  • http://chicagoboyz.net TMLutas

    There’s been a huge fight between the pro-killing scientists and the ethical scientists where the pro-killing scientists have long predicted that actual pluripotent cells derived from adult cells are impossible. That position has now collapsed and a great many labs around the world have just had their next funding round made much, much harder. Since their research is unethical and immoral, this makes me happy.

  • http://sedemsapientiam.wordpress.com Cajun Joe

    they are “embryonic-like” in that they can differentiate into a number of different kinds of cells (i.e. the are pluripotent). They are not embryo cells because they are not the cells of a human embryo. (“Embryonic-like” is not the official name; it’s a word being used by a journalist to dumb down the hard “pluripotent”)

  • http://hezekiahgarrett.wordpress.com Hezekiah Garrett

    We’ve been chatting at work about this. Rebecca’s explanation gibes completely with my limitwd understanding.

    Rebecca, I have to ask where you get your info though. I havent seen any clear reportage yet. Or do you just have an inside baseball perspective?


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