Scientist who discovered ethically acceptable alternative to embryonic stem cells co-winner of Nobel Prize

By Dave Andrusko

Some developments are so important they need more than one story. That is the case twice today: the surge in support for pro-life Mitt Romney on the one hand, and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan’s Kyoto University for sharing a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with British researcher John Gurdon, on the other.
 
A common description was that both scientists were awarded “for discovering that ordinary cells of the body can be reprogrammed into stem cells, which then can turn into any kind of tissue — a discovery that may led to new treatments” (as USA Today framed it).  Which is true, as far as it goes.
 
However that masks the revolutionary impact of Yamanaka’s breakthrough– that ordinary adult skin cells can be transformed into cells that, like embryonic stem cells, are capable of developing into any cell in the human body. Why such a big deal? This offered an ethically acceptable (and far more promising) alternative to harvesting stem cells from human embryos.
 
Dr. David Prentice, an expert on stem cells, explained to NRL News Today the immense difference between the work of Gurdon and Yamanaka.
 
“While both scientists discovered how to ‘reprogram’ a specialized   cell, i.e., turn back the clock on development, they accomplished this by two very different methods.  Gurdon did it by cloning–by putting a specialized cell nucleus into an egg, and initiating the life of a new organism, a new embryo.
 
“Yamanaka, on the other hand, did exhaustive work to figure out a different way to reprogram a specialized cell. He found that if you turn on just a few (four) key genes, then add those few genes to any intact cell, and you can get them to revert to earlier stage.  Creating these new induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells does not involve the use of embryos, eggs, or cloning.
 
“Yamanaka noted soon after the announcement of the production of human iPS cells in 2007 that development of the technique had an ethical origin (as reported in the New York Times). ‘When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two and now a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. ‘I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.’”
 
In his story today, the New York Times’s Nicholas Wade further explained that the four specific genes (known to biologists as transcription factors) “are proteins made by master genes to regulate other genes. By injecting the four agents into an adult cell, Dr. Yamanaka showed that he could walk the cell back into its primitive, or stem cell, form.”
 
IPS cell technology not only avoids the key obstacle from a pro-life perspective—there are no human embryos killed—“iPS cell technology allows human stem cells to be created from patients with a specific disease,” as the University of California at San Francisco explained its story on the Nobel Prize. “As a result, the iPS cells contain a complete set of the genes that resulted in that disease — and thus represent the potential of a far–superior human model for studying disease and testing new drugs and treatments. In the future, iPS cells could be used in a Petri dish to test both drug safety and efficacy for an individual patient.”
 
But Dr. Prentice, while celebrating the results demonstrated by an ethical alternative, also reminded us that “gold standard” for treatment and saving lives is neither embryonic stem cells (which are, in reality, complete failures to date) nor iPS cells, but adult stem cells.
 
“Adult stem cells remain the only type of stem cell used successfully to treat human patients,” he explained. Adult stem cells have many advantages.  “They can be isolated from numerous tissues, including bone marrow, muscle, fat, and umbilical cord blood, just to name a few,” Prentice told NRL News Today.
 
Moreover, “Adult stem cells also have a proven track record for success at saving lives and improving health on a daily basis.  Over 50,000 people around the globe are treated each year with adult stem cells.
 
“The diseases and conditions successfully treated by adult stem cells, as shown by published scientific evidence, continue to expand, with published success for numerous cancers, spinal cord injury, heart damage, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell anemia, and many others,” he concluded.