iPS Cell Research
The Discovery of iPS Cells could end the Stem Cell Debate
In what is regarded as a major scientific breakthrough, scientists in Wisconsin and Japan reported in late 2007 that they were able to coax ordinary skin cells into becoming pluripotent stem cells -- cells that have the potential to become any cell or tissue in the body. Pluripotent is the quality in embryonic stem cells that scientists believe is valuable for treating diseases and conditions.
These new cells are called iPS cells (induced Pluripotent Stem Cells). No living human beings had to be destroyed to achieve this discovery which is revolutionizing the entire area of stem cell research.
This process has been replicated by many research labs all over the world. To be certain, the ethical controversy over destruction of human embryos has been minimized, if not completely mitigated, by this discovery.
What Led to the Discovery
James Thomson of Wisconsin and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan raced to the finish line ahead of many other scientists worldwide working to create iPS cells. There are several reasons why scientists headed in this direction:
- Scientists recognized the advantage of having patient-specific cells without having to obtain or create human embryos and destroy them or engage in cloning.
- The Bush policy, which did not allow the use of federal funds to destroy living human embryos, spurred scientists to search for an ethical solution to a promising field.
- Thomson and Yamanaka were motivated to resolve the ethical concerns surrounding embryonic stem cell research. Thomson said in 2007 that "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough." Yamanaka stated "When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can't keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way."
Practical Benefits of iPS Cells
The practical benefits are enormous. It is far easier to extract skin cells from a child or adult than to create and destroy an embryo or gain permission to use and destroy a frozen embryo. There is a limited supply of frozen embryos. Embryonic stem cells will be rejected because they carry the DNA of a different human person; using a person's own cells eliminates the rejection factor.
Some have dubbed iPS cells as the "Holy Grail" of stem cell research because they are patient-specific and have the ability to benefit humanity without the ethical controversy from the loss of human life.
Human cloning, and all of the risks and disadvantages associated with this process, is no longer necessary. Women will not have to undergo risks to produce enough eggs to allow human cloning to be practiced. The perceived need to create chimeras (which are part animal - part human) to carry out human cloning is eliminated.
Use of iPS Cells
iPS cells contain all of the problems associated with embryonic stem cells and are too dangerous to put into a person just yet. This discovery should not in any way stop the incredible progress of adult stem cells which are helping real people with real diseases.
What Will Happen to Embryonic Stem Cell Research
It remains to be seen if scientists will "cling" to embryonic stem cell research or move to ethical and practical research using iPS cells. James Thomson, the Wisconsin scientist who isolated the first embryonic stem cell in 1997 and co-discovered iPS cells in 2007, has formed two new research companies.
The fact that Thomson, perhaps the world's leading scientist in this area, is working exclusively with ethical iPS cells in his own companies is a beacon of hope for forging ahead to learn new ways to treat illnesses and conditions without destroying human lives.
Thomson said, "We started a field (in 1998). Now we might have come up with the best thing to go on to. It creates a nice bookend to 10 years of controversy."
Thanks to the moral fortitude and diligence of many, we have learned, once again, that advances in the treatment of human persons do not have to sacrifice one person for the benefit of another.