New Research May Point to Moral Procedure for Obtaining Pluripotent Stem Cells

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Scientists at Harvard have turned ordinary human skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells – known as pluripotent stem cells – using a new reprogramming process. The scientists’ findings are set to be published in the next edition of the journal Science and if the method proves successful it may pave the way for production of pluripotent stem cells without destroying human embryos. Two prominent opponents of embryo-destructive research say that the new procedure is not without problems but both agreed the findings represent a step in the direction of ethical stem cell research.

August 23, 2005
Volume 3, Number 3

Scientists at Harvard have turned ordinary human skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells – known as pluripotent stem cells – using a new reprogramming process. The scientists’ findings are set to be published in the next edition of the journal Science and if the method proves successful it may pave the way for production of pluripotent stem cells without destroying human embryos. Two prominent opponents of embryo-destructive research say that the new procedure is not without problems but both agreed the findings represent a step in the direction of ethical stem cell research.

Scientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, according to a press release from the organization, fused “an entire skin cell to an existing embryonic stem cell. The result is a hybrid cell with two sets of genetic material, one from each parent. . . .[T]hey found that the fused hybrids retain many of the properties of embryonic stem cells, including the ability to differentiate into multiple adult cells types.”

The research has received widespread attention in the media including a front page story in Monday’s Washington Post. The news even scored a positive mention in The Progress Report, a daily e-mail sent out by the American Progress Action Fund, the sister advocacy organization of the far left Center for American Progress.

Wesley J. Smith, a widely regarded expert on bioethics and the author of several books on the topic, sees potential in the proposal. “If this procedure works, it could put an end to therapeutic cloning since it could do away with the need to use cloning to derive pluripotent stem cells that would not be rejected by the body. In this sense, it could be very valuable, since it could make a cloning ban easier to pass.” But Smith also urged caution. “I do believe the better and more moral course for obtaining efficacious treatments, if they work, would be adult stem cells, since they would use the patient’s own cells for therapy without the need of genetic engineering or using embryonic stem cells. Still, this study is potentially very good news for anyone who is opposed to human cloning.”

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, is also cautiously optimistic. Since the procedure requires an embryonic stem cell to be fused with a normal cell, Father Pacholczyk warns that if that stem cell were obtained though the intentional destruction of a human embryo, questions of cooperation with evil would have to be considered. But Father Pacholczyk believes the research is a step in the right direction. “I am convinced that technology does offer us opportunities and pathways that are not going to be morally problematic and we just have to be resolved at the beginning not to cross any moral lines. If we do that we can find clever solutions and this is kind of hinting in the direction of a clever solution.”

The idea of reprogramming human somatic cells into pluripotent stem cells was proposed in “Alternative Sources of Human Pluripotent Stem Cells,” a report released by the Presidents Council on Bioethics in May. The report examined four possible ways of obtaining embryonic-like stem cells without destroying a human embryo.

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