By Dave Andrusko
Time has gotten away from me today, but I still want to write something in the way of a follow up to the two stories we ran yesterday about Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, a co-winner of a Nobel Prize.
In an ingenious fashion whose results were initially greeted with great skepticism, Yamanaka found a way out of the corner that proponents of embryonic stem research wanted to paint opponents. His work demonstrated that you didn’t need to scavenge a living human embryo for stem cells. You could reprogram an existing cell—typically a skin cell—and by adding a few key genes you could “walk the cell back into its primitive, or stem cell, form” (as Nicholas Wade of the New York Times wrote). These became known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells and does not involve the use of embryos, eggs, or cloning.
A wonderful piece on Slate.com titled “The Healer” is very much worth reading. What gets lost in the accolades is the moral dimension of Yamanaka’s work. William Saletan began his story by writing
“Shinya Yamanaka, a scientist at Kyoto University, loved stem-cell research. But he didn’t want to destroy embryos. So he figured out a way around the problem. In a paper published five years ago in Cell, Yamanaka and six colleagues showed how ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’ could be derived from adult cells and potentially substituted, in research and therapy, for embryonic stem cells.”
He quotes the always wrong New York Times which “said Yamanaka’s work, like other stem-cell technologies, had ‘generated objections from people who fear, on ethical or religious grounds, that scientists are pressing too far into nature’s mysteries and the ability to create life artificially.’” As Saletan immediately notes, “That’s completely wrong. Even before Yamanaka’s landmark paper, pro-lifers were all over his work. They loved it.” (As evidence, he links to three stories that ran in National Right to Life News and/or National Right to Life News Today.)
Saletan is not entirely correct when he concludes Yamanaka “transformed” the debate “forever” for two reasons. One, those who are ideologically committed to embryonic stem cell research will never give up and will always find a subservient press corps eager to hype any “breakthrough” even when it’s not.
Second, as we explained yesterday, the ”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,” said Dr. David Prentice, an expert on stem cell research. 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.
Saletan may have slightly exaggerated when he concluded that Yamanaka “tore down the wall between preserving embryos and saving lives. “ But that takes nothing away from Dr. Yamanaka’s magnificent accomplishments.
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