The Holy Grail of reprogramming: A new era for stem cells?

The recent discovery that regular old garden-variety skin cells can be converted into highly flexible (pluripotent) stem cells has rocked the scientific world. Two papers, one by a Japanese group, and another by an American group, have announced a genetic technique that produces stem cells without destroying (or using) any human embryos. In other words, the kind of stem cell usually obtained by destroying embryos appears to be available another way. All that is required is to transfer four genes into the skin cells, triggering them to convert into pluripotent stem cells. It has been called “biological alchemy,” something like turning lead into gold. Many are hailing “cellular reprogramming” as a breakthrough of epic proportions, the stuff that Nobel prizes are made of, a kind of Holy Grail in biomedical research.

As important as this advance may prove to be scientifically, it may be even more important to the ethical discussion. It offers a possible solution to a longstanding ethical impasse and a unique opportunity to declare a pause, maybe even a truce in the stem-cell wars, given that the source of these cells is ethically pristine and uncomplicated. As one stem-cell researcher put it recently, if the new method produces equally potent cells, as it has been touted to do, “the whole field is going to completely change. People working on ethics will have to find something new to worry about.” Thus, science itself may have devised a clever way to heal the wound it opened back in 1998 when human embryos began to be sought out and destroyed for their stem cells. Dr. James Thomson (whose 1998 work ignited the controversy, and who also published one of the new breakthrough papers) acknowledged just such a possibility in comments to reporters: “Ten years of turmoil and now this nice ending.” Whether this nice ending will actually play out remains to be seen, but a discovery of this magnitude, coupled with a strong ethical vision, certainly has the potential to move us beyond the contentious moral quagmire of destroying human embryos.

Change never comes easily, however, and before we can really change, we need to see the reasons why we should change. Each of us is, incredibly, an embryo who has grown up. This biological fact stares researchers in the face every time they choose to “disaggregate” a human embryo with their own bare hands. It makes many researchers edgy, touching them on some deeper level of their being. It makes many Americans queasy and eager to find alternatives. Dr. Thomson, who has overseen the destruction of numerous embryonic humans himself, had the honesty to acknowledge this fact in comments he made to the New York Times recently: “If human embryonic stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.”

Reprogramming eliminates these ethical concerns even as it offers a highly practical and straightforward technique for obtaining pluripotent stem cells. As Dr. Thomson himself put it, “Any basic microbiology lab can do it, and it’s cheap and quick.” Reprogramming is also important because it provides an alternative approach to “therapeutic cloning,” a complex and immoral procedure used to obtain patient-specific stem cells. Reprogramming provides patient-specific stem cells as well, but without using women’s eggs, without killing embryos, and without crossing moral lines.

The sheer practicality of the new reprogramming approach, coupled with its ethical advantages, really make it a no-brainer. Yet despite all these advantages, a number of voices can be heard arguing that the bio-industrial-complex emerging around destructive human embryo research must be safeguarded and expanded. There are at least three reasons for this.

First, the financial investment that has already been made in this arena is significant, especially considering certain state initiatives like Proposition 71 in California which devote large sums of state taxpayer money to pursue research that depends on human embryo destruction. Once large sums of money are involved, ethics often become the first casualty.

Second, some of the scientists who advocate the destruction of human embryos have never really taken the moral concerns very seriously because the creed they subscribe to is the so-called “scientific imperative,” namely, that science must go forward, as if it were the highest good. It must be able to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, whenever it wants, and nobody should be pushing ethical viewpoints to limit what researchers do. That, of course, is a completely untenable position because we regulate what scientists do all the time. The very mechanism by which we disperse federal money puts all kinds of checks and balances on what researchers can do and there are certain types of research like germ warfare studies or nuclear bomb development that the government strictly regulates already. Other kinds of research are criminal, such as performing medical experiments on patients who don’t give their consent. The idea that we have to allow science to do whatever it wants is little more than “pie-in-the-sky” wishful thinking.

The third reason embryo-destructive research will still likely be promoted has to do with abortion. Several astute commentators have noted recently how the whole field of embryonic stem-cell research seems to serve as a kind of “hedge” for abortion. In the same way that a garden gets a hedge placed around it in order to protect it, embryonic stem cells are becoming a place holder for abortion. If embryo killing becomes incorporated into the way we cure illnesses and maintain our health as a society, then abortion on demand will be more likely to curry favor in our culture as well. If those trying to protect embryos carry the day, pro-abortionists fear that the same ethical arguments will prevail against abortion.

Several factors will therefore influence how this major new stem-cell discovery plays out in the future. One thing is clear, however: those renegade researchers, lawmakers and Hollywood personalities who have long dismissed ethical concerns and advocated human embryo destruction now find themselves at an important juncture because of this breakthrough. We can only hope that in the wake of this discovery, the siren call of harvesting human embryos will cease ringing in their ears and allow for a new era of ethical science in our society.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, Mass., and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See