November 20th, 2007 03:48 EST
Somatic Cell Reprogramming to Obtain Stem Cells
The highly promising strategy of reprogramming human somatic cells, presented in recent papers by the research teams of Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and Dr. James Thomson, represents a significant breakthrough in attempts to obtain pluripotent stem cells, and affects the ethical discussion around stem cells in a very positive way. The studies confirm that human skin cells (fibroblasts) can be used to make pluripotent stem cells sharing essentially all the features of human embryonic stem cells. The technique involves the introduction of 4 genes into the skin cells, thereby "reprogramming" them to a less specialized (pluripotent) state.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center has been exploring and promoting the use of alternative methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells for several years, and the methods outlined in these papers fully conform to what we have hoped to see for some time. Such strategies should continue to be pursued and strongly promoted, as they should help to steer the entire field of stem cell research in a more explicitly ethical direction by circumventing the moral quagmire associated with destroying human embryos.
These strategies also circumvent a second series of moral objections by providing a method for obtaining patient- matched stem cells without cloning human embryos or using women's eggs. Reprogramming also appears to be technically simpler and more straightforward than these other approaches involving embryos.
In response to these developments, Dr. Ian Wilmut, the researcher responsible for cloning Dolly, has decided not to pursue a license to clone human embryos, which he was awarded just two years ago in Britain, but to pursue reprogramming strategies instead. His change of position flowed largely from practical considerations, but he reportedly acknowledged that the reprogramming approach is also "easier to accept socially." Persistence in seeking creative scientific breakthroughs and actively pursuing alternative approaches can help resolve serious ethical problems and allow us to maintain the ethical integrity of science while achieving important scientific and medical ends. The National Catholic Bioethics Center strongly supports and encourages such morally acceptable alternative approaches to obtaining pluripotent stem cells, in the realization that it is never necessary for laboratory researchers to cross fundamental moral lines in order for science and medicine to make real and enduring advances.
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