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January 12, 2008

In a recent post, entitled “Good News for Everyone,” we rejoiced over the news that two independent teams of researchers had converted ordinary human skin cells into embryonic stem cells. They started out with human fibroblasts, then inserted four genes that caused the cells to become pluripotent, that is, to have the ability to grow into all the major tissues of the adult human body. This has great promise for medical research, and may offer eventual cures for a variety of chronic diseases.

I guess the “devil” is in the details. At the time I wrote my first post, I did not yet have access to the Science article in which the Thomson team (Wisconsin) first reported their results. But I found this out indirectly from a blog post:
[T]hey tested this combination of genes in a commercially available, genetically modified cell culture, IMR90 fetal fibroblasts. (These cells were cultured from a little girl aborted at 16 weeks gestation). These cells are fetal cells, not adult cells, and they were chosen because they have been studied and the genome is well known.
According to LifeSite News, both research teams “used several versions of the 293 aborted fetal cell lines to modify the DNA of the host adult skin cells, in order to accomplish the reprogramming.”
Ethically, this clouds the picture quite a bit. The fact that they used a culture of cells from an abortion that took place in the past nonetheless raises questions about moral complicity. This would be similar to the use of vaccines derived from aborted fetal research (several of such vaccines are still in use today). According to biotech industry analyst Dr. Theresa Deisher:
There are other ethical ways to produce the DNA needed for transformation, efficiently and morally. If these means were employed to produce the needed DNA, there would be no moral issues with the use of reprogrammed adult cells for research.
I can still hope that future developments will not cut ethical corners, and human personhood and dignity may yet be upheld in subsequent research. But I’m not holding my breath.

Original Scientific Papers:

Takahashi, et al (Yamanaka research group in Kyoto, Japan)
Yu, et al (Thomson research group in Wisconsin)

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