On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

Archive for Stem Cell


Working days, nights and weekends, with criminal charges hanging over his head, disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk is trying to climb the steep hill to rehabilitation. Assisted by a team of 30 in a private lab south of Seoul, he is working on cloning animal embryos. A colleague told AP that he dreams of working with cloned human embryos again. “There are many good research results that we want to boast about,” she says.However, editors of leading journals are cautious. “Any submission form Dr Hwang would take into consideration the irreparable harm that his previous misconduct has inflicted on the scientific enterprise,” says Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, one of the journals duped by the Korean. And Curt Civin, editor of Stem Cells, who was also a victim of his fraud, says that he would worry about recidivism.

Somewhat surprisingly, Harvard researcher George Daley told an international meeting of stem cell scientists in Australia recently that Hwang’s research was genuinely original. He had been the first to create stem cell lines from a parthenote, an activated, unfertilised egg. ~ AP, Jun 21; Nature Reports Stem Cells blog, Jun 18   


Nature has launched a new website dedicated to news and views about stem cells. “Our goal is enlighten and promote communication in stem cell research by providing content as diverse as the stakeholders in this field — all the scientists, policy makers, ethicists, clinicians, and patients who are driving stem cell research forward,” says Nature Reports Stem Cells.Apart from serving as a way of keeping non-specialists and lay readers up to date, the site also seems committed to promoting embryonic stem cell research. One of its first comment pieces come from a Lutheran theologian who offers a theological justification for chimeras. Ted Peters, of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, finds that reasons offered by Catholics and Evangelicals are insufficient to proscribe the creation of chimeric human embryonic stem cells.

The “yuck factor”, he feels, also fails in the face of the great possible good from this research. He even finds that arguments against the creation of hybrid creatures are “weak”, although for the moment, this would be unwise. “When more is known, such a policy could be revised.” ~Nature Reports Stem Cells   


Another Australian state is on the road to approving therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research. After a heated debate in the media, the lower house of the New South Parliament has voted 65 to 26 to support it, following the lead of its southern neighbour, Victoria. But generating even more controversy than the scientific and ethical issues of stem cell research were remarks by the outspoken Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell. He has had to weather a blizzard of criticism over his comment that Catholic parliamentarians faced unspecified “consequences” for their religious life if they supported the bill.Premier Morris Iemma, a Catholic, voted for the bill. “I’ve already thought seriously about this legislation and it passes all the ethical and moral issues that I need passed, and gives people hope,” he said. Emergency Services Minister Nathan Rees even suggested that Pell’s intervention might constitute contempt of parliament. This was also mooted on the other side of Australia, in Perth, where similar remarks made by Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey were referred to that state’s parliamentary privileges committee. Speaker Fred Riebeling said they had been “threatening” to MPs.

Cardinal Pell, who funds adult stem cell research, was unmoved. “Adult stem cell has been much more productive than work on embryonic stem cells, which so far has proved to be a dead end. Little has been produced except massive grants for the researchers,” he argues. ~ Sydney Morning Herald, Jun 7


There was excitement, too, on Capitol Hill, in Washington DC, over the stunning new research, which appeared in the journal Nature just before the House of Representatives voted to loosen restrictions imposed by President Bush on funding for embryonic stem cell research. In any case it came too late to influence the passage of the bill, which failed to get the numbers required to override the expected presidential veto.Was it just a coincidence? Some legislators thought not. “It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, ‘You don’t have to do stem cell research,'” says Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel. “Convenient timing,” said bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

However, the Washington Post consulted experts on probability. Happenstance — or an underhanded plot to sink the bill? Skulduggery by American opponents of stem cell research? By rival British researchers bent on world domination? The experts backed coincidence. “Papers are coming out about embryonic stem cells so regularly that the odds are going to be high that some will come out when Congress is voting on them,” says David Ropeik, a Harvard expert in risk assessment. ~ Washington Post, Jun 10


Ten years ago there was Dolly the Scottish cloned sheep and the race towards therapeutic cloning was on. Ten years later there are Japanese mice and the race could be over. Three different groups reported last week that normal skin cells in mice can be reprogrammed to an embryonic state. “Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I’ve never worked with either,” says Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who first unveiled the technique a year ago to sceptical colleagues.Now his results have been confirmed by two other teams, at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. The reprogrammed cells meet all the tests of pluripotent cells — they form colonies, propagate continuously and form cancerous growths called teratomas, as well as producing chimaeras. “Its unbelievable, just amazing,” says Hans Schöler, a German stem cell expert. “For me, it’s like Dolly. It’s that type of an accomplishment.”      What Yamanaka did was to take a mouse skin cell and introduce into it four proteins which trigger the expression of other genes to make it pluripotent. He calls the result induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). “It’s easy. There’s no trick, no magic,” he says.  

Naturally, it’s easy only for experts at the moment. In practice, the four transcription factors reprogram cells inefficiently — only 0.1% of the cells in a skin biopsy. Then these cells have to be isolated. But Yamanaka has developed a technique for this as well. And there are some worrying issues to contend with: one of the proteins seems to contribute to cancers in 20% of the chimaeric mice.

But Harvard researcher Chad Cowan says that it will change the field: “The most amazing thing about these papers is you now take this whole idea of reprogramming out of the hands of cloning specialists and put it into the hands of anyone who can do molecular and cell biology.” Now the race is on to apply the technique to human cells. “We are working very hard — day and night,” says Yamanaka.

Executives from embryonic stem cell companies were not optimistic about the new technique. Because it involves tinkering with the genome, it could be dangerous, in the opinion of Thomas B. Okarma, of Geron. Getting approval from regulatory authorities would become far more complicated. And the head of the team at the Whitehead Institute, Rudolph Jaenisch, still insists that therapeutic cloning remains “absolutely necessary”.

The ethical implications of this development were immediately seized upon by opponents of embryonic stem cell research. “Morally and practically, this new approach appears to be far superior,” commented Richard Doerflinger, a spokesman for the US Catholic bishops conference. ~ New York Times, Jun 7; Nature, Jun 7; Science, Jun 8   


D-Day is approaching for embryonic stem cells, says the CEO of Geron, Tom Okarma. The world’s first clinical trial will begin early next year on patients with spinal cord injury in six trauma centres across the US.

Because of the intense scrutiny that these trials are sure to receive from the US Food and Drug Administration, from the media, and from hostile critics of the ethically contentious technology, extensive preparatory work has taken place. Animal tests have already showed that nerve cells grown from human embryonic stem cells can repair spinal cord injuries in rats. “Paralysed rats can walk again,” says the Financial Times, although this has been disputed by critics.

Mr Okarma claims that rapid progress has been made since human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998. Even more ground could have been covered except for the intransigence of the Bush Administration. However, he and his supporters are wary of raising public expectations too high. Hans Kierstead, head of the embryonic stem cell team at University of California Irvine, says: “I find it unfair that people demand so much from such a young field. Just look at the strides we have already made.”

And Bob Klein, the chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which has been authorised to a spend at least $3 billion over 10 years on stem cell research, told the BIO biotechnology conference in Boston recently that good spin doctors would be needed to put across the right message in the event of setbacks.

The ideological right is not asleep,” said Mr Klein. “They will be prepared to spin [any problems] to promote their opposition to embryonic stem cell research, and we’ll need a sophisticated fast- response messaging team to put across our message.” ~ Financial Times, May 9

More bad news for boys

 Adult stem cells from females are more successful at regeneration than those from males, scientists at the Pittsburgh School of Medicine have found. “Regardless of the sex of the host, the implantation of female stem cells led to significantly better skeletal muscle regeneration,” they wrote in the Journal of Cell Biology. ~ MSNBC.com, Apr 9