TCS Daily


Will a Disruptive Technology Mothball Therapeutic Cloning?

By Michael Cook - June 19, 2007 12:00 AM

The global grandees of therapeutic cloning recently gathered in sun-soaked Cairns, the gateway to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, for their annual conference. They have serious strategic issues to deal with along with their scientific papers and posters: persuading governments to open their wallets, ensuring that the Bush Administration's restrictions on their work are lifted, allaying the public's qualms about creating embryos solely for research.

But hovering over the buzz of morning coffee has been a dark cloud: as governments everywhere promote it, is therapeutic cloning going to be mothballed before it has produced a single cure?

Only a few days ago an article in the leading journal Nature brought amazing news. A Japanese team at Kyoto University has discovered how to reprogram skin cells so that they "dedifferentiate" into the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell. From this they can be morphed, theoretically, into any cell in the body, a property called pluripotency. It could be the Holy Grail of stem cell science: a technique that is both feasible and unambiguously ethical.

"Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I've never worked with either," says Shinya Yamanaka. The first instalment of his research appeared a year ago -- and was greeted with polite scepticism by his colleagues. At the time they were mesmerised by dreams of cloning embryos and dissecting them for their stem cells.

The previous head of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, Lawrence S. B. Goldstein, had even dismissed reprogramming as quixotic. "If there are scientists who morally oppose [embryonic] stem cell research and want to devote their energies to uncovering alternatives, that's fine," said Goldstein. "But in no way, shape, or form should we ask the scientific community and patient community to wait to see if these new alternatives will work." Now, however, ten years after Dolly, not one scientist anywhere using a cloned human embryo has created a stem cell line. Not one. And a Japanese Don Quixote has.

This is mainstream research, not an eccentric theory from a Romanian naturopathy journal. Yamanaka's work has been confirmed by two other teams affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles -- both of them headed by ardent supporters of embryonic stem cell research.

They say that 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. "It's easy. There's no trick, no magic," he says. Now the race is on to apply the technique to human cells. "We are working very hard -- day and night," says Yamanaka.

Even the Australian doyen of therapeutic cloning, Alan Trounson, of Monash University, is enthusiastic. "It would change the way we see things quite dramatically," he says. He plans to start experiments "tomorrow".

Will this disruptive technology open up ethical avenues in the promising field of stem cell research, avenues which do not involve turning women into battery hens for their eggs and destroying embryos?

At the moment, the stem cell grandees, like all establishment figures, have no plans to change their tune. One of the stars of the Cairns conference, MIT's Rudolph Jaenisch, told Nature that therapeutic cloning remains "absolutely necessary."

Executives from embryonic stem cell companies were not optimistic about the new technique either. Because it involves tinkering with the genome, it could be dangerous, warned Thomas B. Okarma, of Geron, the leading private company in the field. Getting approval from regulatory authorities would therefore become far more complicated. What else could he say? No doubt manufacturers of vacuum tubes muttered about serious flaws in semiconductors when they first appeared on the market.

With an ethical solution looking quite plausible, the pressure will be on scientists to explain why therapeutic cloning deserves to be legalised and funded. Two years ago, Dr Janet D. Rowley, an Australian working in the US who is an implacable foe of the Bush Administration's policy, dismissed ethical solutions like Yamanaka's. "We have extremely limited research dollars, and to use them to study these alternatives is wrong," she declared. "That money should be available for actual research." But now stem cells derived from embryos are starting to look like dead-end "alternatives."

Don't expect supporters of embryonic stem cell research to respond rationally, not in the short term, at least. The other day, Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel told the US House of Representatives as he voted to overturn the Bush policy: "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 [embryonic] stem cell research.' "

Connect the dots, Mr Emanuel. Maybe you don't have to.

Michael Cook is editor of the international bioethics newsletter BioEdge.


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4 Comments

The Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Again?
I should probably point out that I thought the embryonic stem cell funding ban was a bad idea. However, it's been pretty clear for a while that a lot of research dollars were being diverted into this kind of deprogramming genomics because it couldn't go into ESC research. I wonder if the (beneficial) unintended consequence of the ESC funding ban was this Japanese breakthrough, which relied on a lot of US research.

research dollars
The US ban was only a partial ban on federal funds.
Everyone else was completely free to spend whatever they wanted on ESC.
Even federal funds could be spent on ESC lines that existed prior to ?? (I don't remember the year off the top of my head, but there were plenty of lines already in existence at that time.)

The amount of money blocked by this "ban", compared to the total amount of money available was always pretty small.

If...
This article puts its "ethical viewpoint" ahead of the science.

If the new technique works with human cells and if the changes to the cells have no other complications then great.

However the human cells remain to be reprogrammed and the lack of complications remain to be shown.

In the meantime the exciting thing is what can be done with stem cells (whatever their source) and the ethical point is that Catholic morality stands in the way of resolving medical problems aka progress.

The Christians may have lucked out (I actually hope they have) but remember where their priorities lie.

The author is trying desperately to get the moral high ground - get down man.

Unethical science is no answer
"This article puts its "ethical viewpoint" ahead of the science"

That says it all. All the moral bankruptcy of embryonic stem cell proponents distilled down to one whiny complaint. All conventional science is supposed to put its ethical viewpoint ahead of getting results. Scientists who behave unethically, even if they get results, are shunned and have their funding pulled, period.

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