Is the stem cell debate finally over?
Surprisingly, it just might be. A Japanese researcher has found a cheap and ethical alternative to using embryonic stem cells: an alternative that does not involve killing embryonic human beings.
But first, a little background.
Both embryonic and adult stem cells are capable of transforming themselves into all sorts of cell types. Such cells are called “pluripotent.” Stem cells can be used to develop therapies to repair for instance, a damaged heart, by injecting stem cells from a patient's own body directly into the heart muscle.
Adult stem cells—as opposed to embryonic stem cells—are already being used to cure all kinds of diseases. And now a researcher has discovered a simple means of creating them; She does it by putting cells under stress.
The journal Nature describes how Japanese researcher Haruko Obokata was culturing cells one day and “noticed that some, after being squeezed through a capillary tube, would shrink to a size similar to that of stem cells.” Intrigued, Obokata began applying other types of stress to cells. Ultimately, she took mature blood cells from mice and put them into a citric acid bath for thirty minutes.
The exciting result: The cells showed “markers of pluripotency.”
But mere markers was not enough. Cells are not considered pluripotent unless they exhibit the ability to turn into all types of cells. According to Nature writer David Cyranoski, this could be demonstrated “by injecting fluorescently tagged cells into a mouse embryo. If the introduced cells are pluripotent, the glowing cells show up in every tissue of the resultant mice.”
This strategy was tried on hundreds of mice, but their tissues “were only faintly fluorescent.” Then another scientist, Teruhiko Wakayama, “suggested stressing fully differentiated cells from newborn mice instead of those from adult mice.” The result: “A fully green mouse embryo.”
Obokata has gone on to reprogram various cell types, “including those from the brain, skin, lung, and liver.”
And now we have even more exciting news from London's The Independent on Sunday newspaper. In a story published on February 9, journalist Steve Conner wrote that the next step has been taken.
“A team of Japanese and American scientists converted human skin cells into stem cells using the same simple technique” “pioneered on mouse cells”—an approach that “had astonished scientists around the world,” Conner wrote. According to him, this “raises the prospect of new treatments for incurable illnesses, from Parkinson's to heart disease, based on regenerating diseased organs in situ from a patient's own stem cells.”
This is wonderful news, partly because finding cures for diseases is nearly always a good thing, and partly because it takes us another big step away from the practice of destroying human embryos to harvest their stem cells. And the procedure is so simple that many researchers will be willing and able to do it at low cost.
Nevertheless, we should be cautious. As The Independent warns, “scientists believe that it could, theoretically, be possible to [create human embryos from skin cells] given that entire mouse embryos have already been effectively created from the re-engineered blood cells of laboratory mice.”
Can you say, “Cloning?”
This means we need to continue to pay close attention to the debates over what those little green mice embryos have taught us—and to boldly defend the sanctity and inviolability of human life from conception through natural death.
BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.
Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Publication date: February 13, 2014