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Posts Tagged ‘embryonic stem cells’

Remember all the fuss about embryonic stem cells? About how the only way to offer hope to millions of people suffering from a plethora of diseases and medical conditions was to harvest stem cells from embryonic human life? About how the destruction of the human embryo was a sad but necessary price to pay for the incalculable advances that could be achieved? Remember the accusations that were hurled against those who opposed this utilitarian reasoning on ethical grounds, and dared to suggest that there might be an alternative and ethically acceptable route to medical progress?

It has just been announced that Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge University shares this year’s Nobel prize for physiology or medicine with Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka. Why? Because they have been at the forefront of research proving that adult cells can be reprogrammed and grown into different bodily tissues.

Sir John Gurdon on the right

Ian Sample reports. This is the ethical perspective from the end of the article:

For Julian Savulescu, Uehiro professor of practical ethics at Oxford University, the researchers’ work deserved particular praise because reprogrammed cells overcome the moral concerns that surrounded research on embryonic stem cells.

“This is not only a giant leap for science, it is a giant leap for mankind. Yamanaka and Gurdon have shown how science can be done ethically. Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all. He deserves not only a Nobel prize for medicine, but a Nobel prize for ethics.”

And here is some of the scientific background:

The groundbreaking work has given scientists fresh insights into how cells and organisms develop, and may pave the way for radical advances in medicine that allow damaged or diseased tissues to be regenerated in the lab, or even inside patients’ bodies…

Prior to the duo’s research, many scientists believed adult cells were committed irreversibly to their specialist role, for example, as skin, brain or beating heart cells. Gurdon showed that essentially all cells contained the same genes, and so held all the information needed to make any tissue.

Building on Gurdon’s work, Yamanaka developed a chemical cocktail to reprogram adult cells into more youthful states, from which they could grow into many other tissue types.

In a statement, the Nobel Assembly at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute in Sweden, said the scientists had “revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop”…

Gurdon’s breakthrough came in 1962 at Oxford University, when he plucked the nucleus from an adult intestine cell and placed it in a frog’s egg that had had its own nucleus removed. The modified egg grew into a healthy tadpole, suggesting the mature cell had all the genetic information needed to make every cell in a frog. Previously, scientists had wondered whether different cells held different gene sets.

Yamanaka, who was born in the year of Gurdon’s discovery, reported in 2006 how mature cells from mice could be reprogrammed into immature stem cells, which can develop into many different types of cell in the body. The cells are known as iPS cells, or induced pluripotent stem cells

Some researchers in the field hope to turn patients’ skin cells into healthy replacement tissues for diseased or aged organs…

Interesting that one of the scientists who missed out this year was James Thompson. He was a pioneer in human embryonic stem cells, being the first to isolate them in the lab in 1998. And more recently, Thompson has shown that mature human body cells could be reprogrammed into stem cells.

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Quite by chance I got chatting to someone who works in a business that deals with stem cells. As soon as he said this I got nervous, thinking the conversation was going to go in an ethically difficult direction. But it turns out that his line is umbilical cords and not embryos.

 

It was a fascinating conversation. The idea is very simple. The stem cells from the umbilical cord have the potential to be used in all sorts of therapies, and they match the child and not the mother. His company collects the cord at birth and stores it, for a fee – so that it can be used to harvest stem cells if they are needed for the child at any time in the future.

What is so interesting, medically and philosophically, is that even though some therapies are already developed, the primary purpose of keeping these stem cells is for them to be used in therapies that are as yet undiscovered. So five, ten, fifteen years in the future the child may need them for a therapy that doesn’t yet exist.

Please don’t think I am promoting this company – this is a blog about ideas, and I have no idea what this or any other stem cell company is actually like. But if you are interested in seeing how one such company promotes itself, and how an ethical scientific idea can be translated into a practical proposition for parents, then take a look here at the Smart Cells website. This is their sales pitch:

Why store your child’s stem cells? The umbilical cord and umbilical cord blood are discarded as medical waste after the hospital draws samples for their testing…unless the mother chooses to bank the cord blood. In 1988 a stem cell transplant took place that received little attention, yet heralded the start of an exciting new era in medicine.

The transplant used stem cells found in the umbilical cord blood remaining in the placenta and umbilical cord after the birth of a baby. The patient was a little boy suffering from a serious blood disorder called Fanconi’s Anaemia, and the stem cells were taken from the cord blood of his new-born sister.

Your child’s stem cells have a one in four chance of matching a sibling. Using genetically related stem cells which are free from the disease being treated, often results in successful transplants with fewer complications.

The thought of your baby or any other member of your family becoming seriously ill is probably the last thing on your mind during your pregnancy. By storing your new-born baby’s umbilical cord stem cells, you can give your family a gift that can last a lifetime.

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If you are looking for online resources in bioethics, here are a couple of useful sites (following on from my recent post about the distortion of language in bioethical reporting).

Dolly the Cloned Sheep

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has a bioethics page with links to various articles and downloadable pamphlets. The topics include: stem cell research, cloning, genetic enhancement, IVF, eugenics, human dignity, reproductive technology, etc.

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre is the main Christian bioethics institute in Britain. The resources are here (articles, publications, newsletters, etc); and there is a big list of articles and links here at their old Linacre Centre site (I’m not sure if all these articles have been moved over yet).

I also happened to come across this very informative blog last week called Mary Meets Dolly, “A Catholic’s Guide to Genetics, Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology”. The author, Rebecca Taylor, has her own page of links (I can’t recommend them all as I haven’t looked at them all yet…). And this is from her ‘About’ page:

My name is Rebecca Taylor.  I am a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and more importantly, a practicing Catholic. I have been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for five years. I have been interviewed on EWTN radio on topics from stem cell research and cloning to voting pro-life.

All of this began several years ago when I was discussing stem cells and cloning with an older gentleman at a family party.  He was very knowledgeable about biotechnology, but was surprised about many little-known and quite misleading facts.  He asked where I had gathered those facts, and I told him I was reading every pertinent scientific reference I could get my hands on. He looked me in the eye and said, “Young lady, it is not good enough to read, you must do something!”  I found out later he was a former U.S. congressman from California.

Indeed, I began to notice a general lack of understanding about contemporary issues in genetics, genetic engineering, and reproductive technology, issues that have shaped, and will continue to shape, the future of humanity, for good or ill.  I work with professionals whose business is medical genetics, and even they are confused about the pragmatics, not to mention the ethics, surrounding cloning, stem cells, and recent advances in genetic engineering.  If professionals could be confused, I feared that the average Catholic would feel lost amidst the scientific jargon and, unfortunately, the hype.

I decided to start marymeetsdolly.com to try and provide Catholics with solid, pertinent resources and clear, plain commentary so they could be more conversant with the issues proffered by the newest of the “brave new world” movements.

With this website, I hope to take what I have learned (through months of studying the technologies and ethical stances involved) and explain the advances and the issues in terms the person-on-the-street can understand.  With the help of my father, a theologian, I hope to juxtapose and illuminate today’s genetic research and engineering with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life.

At this site, Catholics can find information to better understand stem cell research, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, genetic testing, and much more.  The Topics section has articles covering various technologies; what is moral, what is immoral.  It also has articles on pertinent topics by other authors.  The Books section has a reading list for those who want to do their own research.  The Links page has a list of websites through which one can keep up to date in this rapidly changing field.  The Glossary page lists important terms and their definitions.  The Church Teaching page has official Catholic Church teaching on reproductive issues and the sanctity of human life.  The Blog has my daily thoughts on new developments and a chance for you to respond.  And my favorite, the Quotes section, has all the verbal gems I have found that say it all.  

On the question of language, see her post about whether our understanding of when human life begins is a matter of belief or of knowledge.

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It’s obvious that the language we use affects the force of our arguments. And there are many examples of how an uncomfortable truth can be disguised by changing the language used to describe it.

There is a beautiful and unsettling example of this in one of the Times leaders this morning. The topic is the decision to award the Nobel Prize for Medicine to Professor Robert Edwards for his pioneering work in IVF. (The photo is of Alfred Nobel not Edwards!)

Professor Edwards’s work has its critics. The Roman Catholic Church opposes some IVF, on the ground that it can involve the destruction of embryos. And it is beyond argument that this is what happens: fertility clinics generally fertilise many eggs, and often implant two, to maximise the chance that one will survive. The remaining tiny embryos are then frozen or discarded.

But there is nothing anti-life in IVF: the embryos are created to produce babies and allow the chance of parenthood to couples who want a child of their own. Nature itself creates and fertilises many more eggs than become babies.

The embryonic cell can also be taken apart, at an early stage, to yield stem cells. Research using stem cells offers the promise of finding a cure for debilitating conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Do you notice how the language of ’embryo’ in the first and second paragraphs is changed, without any fuss, to ’embryonic cell’ in the third paragraph? As if the leader writers are happy to talk about embryos being ‘frozen and discarded’, but uncomfortable with the idea that ‘the embryo can also be taken apart, at an early stage, to yield stem cells’. So the sentence that would have seemed most natural is changed to ‘the embryonic cell can be taken apart…’

I don’t know if this is the art of persuasion, or a subconscious unease with the moral position being taken and the starkness of the language required to describe it (‘taking apart embryos’). Either way, it shows how important it is to monitor the language being used to make ethical arguments, and to question why someone chooses to adapt their language in unexpected ways.

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A lot of pressure has been put on the British public over the last few years to try to convince them of the scientific necessity of harvesting stem cells from human embryos. It’s been a kind of emotional blackmail: If you won’t support this kind of research and therapy then you are condemning millions of people who might have benefitted to unnecessary illness and suffering.

Brain neurons

It’s good to hear that research into adult stem cells has been hugely successful. It shows that you can be scientific and ethical at the same time. That you can respect human life at its very earliest stages even as you are trying to help those who are suffering in its later stages.

This report came out recently from the BBC:

UK researchers are launching a study into the potential of using a person’s stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease. A Oxford University team will use adult stem cells, which have the ability to become any cell in the human body – to examine the neurological condition. Skin cells will be used to grow the brain neurons that die in Parkinson’s, a conference will hear. The research will not involve the destruction of human embryos.

Induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells were developed in 2007. At the time, scientists said it had the potential to offer many of the advantages of embryonic stem cells without any of the ethical downsides. Three years on, it seems to be living up to that claim.

The team at Oxford University is among the first in the world to use IPS to carry out a large scale clinical investigation of Parkinson’s, which is currently poorly understood.

Researchers will be taking skin cells from 1,000 patients with early stage Parkinson’s and turning them into nerve cells carrying the disease to learn more about the brain disorder, the UK National Stem Cell Network annual science meeting will hear. The technique is useful because it is difficult to obtain samples of diseased nerve tissue from patient biopsies. IPS enables the researchers to create limitless quantities of nerve cells to use in experiments and to test new drugs.

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