Why are Catholics Praising the Nobel Prize Stem Cell Technology?

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Source: “Shinya Yamanaka – Biographical”. Nobelprize.org. Creative Commons Attr. 2.0 Generic license

It’s been all over the news lately, particularly in the Catholic and conservative spheres, how Dr. Shinya Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in medicine for reprogramming adult cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). People praised this research for creating new pluripotent stem cell lines to study without creating or destroying embryos. They claimed that the process doesn’t require any morally tainted source cells. They announced the feat as an achievement of great ethical significance, a beautiful and ethical science. They pointed out that the process does not pose ethical issues because embryos are not manipulated, and that embryonic stem cell research will soon be largely put out of business. What a moral victory!

However, digging into and decoding the scientific methodological explanations reveals that what is being praised is definitely not so praiseworthy. It reveals something quite significant, and it mostly hinges on one word — reprogramming. Did anyone notice that in all the cheering, little was explained about the method itself?

How is this reprogramming done? How did they “turn back the clock” on adult stem cells? How does a mature cell become immature again? Well, it’s not magic. The adult stem cell gets introduced to genetic material from other young cells — very young cells. Specifically, Dr. Yamanaka’s group used cells grown from the kidney of an electively aborted healthy child in the Netherlands.

The cells used are named HEK-293 (human embryo kidney), and often referred to without the HEK part as PLAT-A, PLAT-E, and 293FT cells. This Yamanaka paper in Cell journal explains how these cells were used in the methods section, Lentivirus Production and Infection, and elsewhere.

293FT cells (Invitrogen) were plated at 6 × 106 cells per 100 mm dish and incubated overnight…

They are purchased from Invitrogen.

The 293FT Cell Line is a fast-growing, highly transfectable clonal isolate derived from human embryonal kidney cells…

So, where did these 293FT cells come from again? It is instructive to read the troubling words of the doctor who collected them. In this transcript from 2001, the doctor explained their origin to the FDA because the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccines has long been controversial for moral and safety reasons. See page 81 of the FDA document, beginning on line 14:

“The kidney of the fetus was, with an unknown family history, was obtained in 1972 probably. The precise date is not known anymore. The fetus, as far as I can remember was completely normal. Nothing was wrong. The reasons for the abortion were unknown to me. I probably knew it at that time, but it got lost, all this information. The kidneys of the fetus were then isolated and the kidney cells were isolated in the so-called still air cabinet. There were no laminar flow hoods at that time, and this, is simply a still air cabinet that was also used all over for tissue culture and worked quite well. There was UV lights in it just to sterilize it, and that was all.


“So as we did also for the rat kidney cells, the surrounding membranes were removed as completely as possible, and the kidneys were then minced with scissors, trypsinized, and the cells that were recovered after removing the trypsin were cultured in medium containing bovine serum, calf serum. That is what we know.” (Report to FDA, 2001, p. 81, line 14)

How’s that for moral sources? Read on, there were all kinds of questions about contamination from DNA, viruses, and mutant material, a problem that still plaques the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccines because it is unknown how the contaminants affect small infants. You may also remember these fetal cell lines from the PepsiCo boycott when it was discovered they were used to develop flavor-enhancers. Same cells.

Still find this Nobel Prize winning technique praiseworthy? Yes, some still shrug at even this. They say that the use of the morally illicit materials doesn’t matter because the cures could improve so many lives. In other words, they say the ends justify the means.

What about parents who use vaccines grown in aborted fetal cell lines? Some are of the opinion that since the aborted child was killed so long ago and the researcher did not cooperate in the abortion directly, that he is justified in using these cells to try to find life-saving cures for people today. A comparison is also made to parents who allow their children to be vaccinated using vaccines grown in aborted fetal cell lines. In a 2005 statement from the Vatican to Debra L.Vinnedge, Executive Director, Children of God for Life, the President of the Pontifical Academy explained that parents may chose to use these vaccines for their children if no alternatives exist and if they are needed to protect children and pregnant women against disease, on a temporary basis, so long as faithful citizens of upright conscience (fathers of families, doctors, etc.) oppose the use of morally illicit materials by making an objection of conscience against the “ever more widespread attacks against life and the ‘culture of death’ which underlies them.”

That is, parents may use vaccines if they have no other way to protect their children, but they should demand morally licit options that do not degrade the dignity of human life.

But, do parents with no other choice and researchers fall under this same umbrella of exemption? No, not according to the instruction in Dignitas Personae from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. [Emphasis added.]

“Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.” (section 35)

As Dr. Theresa Deisher of Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute (SCPI), a pro-life, non-profit biomedical research organization who has been following this research closely for many years, puts it, “These investigators did not need to use any fetal or embryonic materials; they chose to.”

What does Dignitas Personae say? [Emphasis not added.]

“…there is a duty to refuse to use such ‘biological material’ even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the…abortion, or when there was no prior agreement with the centers in which the artificial fertilization took place. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life.” (section 35)

Researchers have a choice, and there are morally licit choices available, such as stem cells from cord blood. However, these source cells are not as economical or convenient; nor do they win patents and Nobel Prizes.

Catholics are instructed to oppose this research. The ends do not justify the means. Just as we are instructed to demand morally licit choices for vaccines, we are also not to praise morally illicit research just because we hope something may someday come of it.

Further, there are still significant questions about the safety of these iPSCs. Some have suggested they do not form tumors as ESCs do, but that is not true. Search “tumor” in the Cell paper. Although some work in solving this problem has been done, it is not solved. If they are trying to make cells that behave like embryonic stem cells (ESCs), then of course they are going to have the same problems that ESCs have. Actually the induced pluripotent stem cells carry added risks due to the questionable contaminants in the aborted fetal cell lines.

Some even still praise this research because it might provide a way one day for us to create embryonic-like stem cells, and they hope for this even though embryonic stem cells still have not produced any cures. Does that make much sense?

Finally, what about destroying embryos? This technique has also been praised because no embryos are destroyed, but that’s not true either. While it is true that in Dr. Yamanaka’s ground-breaking work he did not destroy embryos because he used data from a database of previously destroyed embryos as comparisons to know whether his cells were in fact embryonic-like, that isn’t the case in more recent work in cell reprogramming. Researchers do destroy embryos to use the stem cells as controls in their data.

See this recent report from August of 2012, work funded by the National Institute for Health and the National Cancer Institute. In the Ethics Statement they state that human embryonic stem cells are used.

The hESC lines used in this proposal served as controls for hiPSC experiments…

The bottom line: This technique for iPSCs 1) uses cells grown from electively aborted children, 2) has just as many, if not more, health risks for patients hoping for cures derived from them, and 3) still involves the killing of human embryos to complete the research.

It is worth noting that we already have many cures using cord blood, and before closing, it is also worth reading the 2008 prediction of Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of American biotechnology company Advanced Cell Technology.

“At this point there are no laws or regulations for this kind of thing and the bizarre thing is that the Catholic Church and other traditional stem-cell opponents think this technology is great when in reality it could in the end become one of their biggest nightmares,” he said. “It is quite possible that the real legacy of this whole new programming technology is that it will be introducing the era of designer babies.”

What’s the real motivation for this research? The reader can decide, but if you are Catholic, or at all concerned about the dignity of human life, stop praising this practice as moral, safe, and the heroic end of research that manipulates and destroys human life. It isn’t.


*I would like to thank the American Life League and the Children of God for Life for the lead on this information.

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  1. I’m reasonably certain I’ve read about iPSC methods that don’t use the immoral fetal tissue; granted this could be wrong. Do you know if the information here pertains to all iPSC? Is there more than one method?

  2. Donald can probably speak to this better than I can, but I recall a criminal law concept that evidence obtained from information gathered illegally taints the entire related body of evidence. For example, information from an illegal wire tap that leads to evidence which, but for the wire-tap, would have been admissible, renders the evidence derived therefrom inadmissible. Often referred to as the “fruit from the poisoned tree.” It seems the same or similar reasoning should apply in this case regarding the morality of the methods employed.

  3. “but I recall a criminal law concept that evidence obtained from information gathered illegally taints the entire related body of evidence.”

    Correct cmatt. There are ways around the fruit of the poisonous tree but courts are normally sceptical once the illegality of the initial gathering of evidence has been established.

  4. cmatt and Donald,

    That is an excellent analogy, something anyone can understand. Will be sharing and attributing. There are Catholics who praised this research, and even knowing the illicit materials used, still find it praiseworthy. Rather than criticize them, I’d rather have great explanations like the one you gave to explain it and hopefully, change their minds.

  5. Thank you, Debi, for that wonderful website with concise information about ethical vaccines available. I have sent it to my daughter. Thank you for giving us this info.

  6. http://www.yahspeople.com/uploads/4/9/0/5/4905603/ethics_hek_293_credit_line.pdf

    Catholic moral teaching is much more nuanced and sophisticated than the legal “fruit from the poisonous tree” evidentiary rule, though carefully-reasoned article linked above reaches the same ultimate conclusion. It is worth reading. That said, I would caution readers to not assume that this article is the last word on the subject from the standpoint of Catholic teaching. The principles at play hear are quite sophisticated and it is conceivable that a well-reasoned position exists to the contrary.

  7. Yes Mike, some Catholics may come up with opposing viewpoints but the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has the last word – and they authored Dignitas Personae, quoted in the article: “…there is a duty to refuse to use such ‘biological material’ even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the…abortion, or when there was no prior agreement with the centers in which the artificial fertilization took place. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life.” (section 35)
    While some may disagree with the Holy See, in reality there is no legitimate reasoning, especially when these scientists could have used moral cell lines to accomplish the reprogramming of adult cells. They chose not to.

  8. Thanks, Debi.
    May one safely infer from the quoted language that the CDF considers it objectively sinful for a parent to allow her child to be vaccinated for measles, mumps, and Rubella? Is it certain that a parent wishing to innoculate a child from disease stands in the same moral posture as a “researcher” with the options you describe?

  9. Thank you for this article, because I didn’t know this and thought this was a positive prize. It is sickening how the whole world is just pursuing these technologies without any ethical concern at all. Most of the news articles about embryonic stem cell research just take it as a given, without even mentioning the ethical dilemmas. Recently a local magazine in New England named two female stem cell researchers as female heroes or role models and didn’t make one peep about any ethical dilemmas about the research. What? Killing embryos is evil, and so is using the poor bodies, no matter how small, of embryos someone else killed.

    The absolute moral principle which can never be violated is this: It is never licit to do evil that good may result. And I’m sorry, but purchasing aborted fetal parts is evil, because you are supporting and helping to perpetuate an evil industry. I don’t care what anyone says about direct or indirect support. Would you buy Jewish body parts that came from Nazi concentration camps, so you could use the material for medical research? I rest my case. The whole business is disgusting. The excuse of helping to cure other people doesn’t cut it.

  10. Mike – no. Both the PAFL and Dignitas stated that parents could use the vaccines because, as the PAFL noted, “the duty to avoid this type of cooperation is not obligatory.” They said it was right to abstain if it could be done without significant risk – and they made it clear that parents and physicians have a duty to put pressure on the pharm industry to bring about changes. The document is on our website at http://www.cogforlife.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/vaticanresponse1.pdf

  11. They claimed that the process doesn’t require any morally tainted source cells.
    I think this statement can still be considered true, and I think that is the upside of this research. Look, I agree that the use of the cell lines derived from abortions is morally repugnant. But the technique in question does not depend on or require such cells. They were used because they present certain favorable properties for research purposes. In fact, I think the whole point is that such cells would not be used in actual treatments, in favor of instead using the patient’s own cells, in order to decrease the chances of the patient’s body rejecting them.

    So while this research is itself tainted by less-than-moral methods, I think the overall take-away is that there is a way to induce these types of stem cells without needing to resort to embryo-destructive means. And that is indeed good news.

  12. I would suggest reading Rebecca Taylor’s blog at Catholic Lane, which addresses a number of the issues raised in the above post.
    Answereing Pro-Life objections to induced pluripotent stem cell research

  13. Donald – the above article was a direct response to Ms Taylor’s false assertion that this is morally acceptable. We addressed it as well on a point by point rebuttal of her article: http://www.cogforlife.org/2012/10/11/reprogramming-pro-lifers-minds-part-ii/
    Mike – the point of this article and others is opposition to awarding the Nobel prize to scientists who in fact, did their research immorally. Its nothing for prolife folks to cheer about when scientists not only deliberately choose immoral actions but when they also mislead the public about what they are doing.

  14. Donald,

    I’m an editor at Catholic Lane, and I still do not agree with some of Rebecca’s statements, although I’ve emailed her privately with the hopes of friendly understanding in good faith. I do not for one minute think she is trying to mislead people. I’ve long been a fan of hers.

    Here are my two concerns in general:

    1) When I realized that the praised technique used aborted fetal cell lines and still used hESCs, I felt duped by Catholic journalists. None of the ones I read even mentioned the immoral aspect. They only praised a process, ambiguously. That’s why I even started reading the scientific papers. I wanted to understand the **process** I was being asked to praise. When I realized what it involved, I wanted to make sure others knew too.

    2) She said parents with no other choice and researchers with other choices are the same. The Holy See has said otherwise. That is not true.

    “Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.” (section 35 of Dignitas personae)

  15. Donald…one really needs to read all of Dignitas Personae because that is a little out of context when you read what they said just prior to all of this.
    Dignitas Personae 35:
    “Therefore, it needs to be stated that there is a duty to refuse to use such “biological material” even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, or when there was no prior agreement with the centers in which the artificial fertilization took place. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life.”

    In addition, Donum Vitae, Evangelium Vitae and the PAFL also stated:

    Evangelium Vitae 63:
    “[T]he use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person”.54 These forms of experimentation always constitute a grave moral disorder.55

    Donum Vitae PAFL I:4:
    “The corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings. In particular, they cannot be subjected to mutilation or to autopsies if their death has not yet been verified and without the consent of the parents or of the mother. Furthermore, the moral requirements must be safeguarded that there be no complicity in deliberate abortion and that the risk of scandal be avoided”

    PAFL 2005: Pg 7
    “As regards the preparation, distribution and marketing of vaccines produced as a result of the use of biological material whose origin is connected with cells coming from foetuses voluntarily aborted, such a process is stated, as a matter of principle, morally illicit, because it could contribute in encouraging the performance of other voluntary abortions, with the purpose of the production of such vaccines.”

  16. Admittedly, this is outside my area of expertise. I do NIH funded work on chromatin remodeling proteins. My comment/question is this:
    Swapping the genetic material from one cell type and introduced into a second cell type from which th genetic material has been excised can have variable effect. I suspect the specific effect desired..the ability to reactivity silenced genes post-differentiation was only possible in a cellular environment that was, in fact, pluripotent…or restated per-differentiated. The proteins and RNAs present, differ between these types of cells. That may be critical.

    What I am getting at is this. Putting the genetic material in ANY other cell type may not have this reprogramming effect. It’s difficult to say, wht would happen. Maybe it is known…not by me. But I suspect only hESC would permit this effect to the degree they claim success. I further suspect…that’s why they used it. We select cell types for specific effects. Not to be disingenuous, but to examine specific functions or control for the numerous variations in cells.

  17. I thought I had read sometime ago that the Holy See was collaborating (not sure of the specific kind of collaboration) with a research firm in Europe or the US on adult
    stem cell research. Is it possible that there are other methods being researched?

  18. Pingback: Hm…
  19. For years, many have known that adult stem cells are fertile sources of whatever medical benefits may be “in the offing.”

    Evil liberals (I repeat myself again) insist on farming humans.

  20. Thanks for this post, Stacy. I’m one of those Catholic bloggers who’ve been praising the work, so I’ve grateful for your detailed digging here, and have linked to this post.

    One thing that does stand out for me still as a pro-life aspect of the work is the motivation: Dr Yamanaka has spoken explicitly about his desire not to use (more) embryos in his work. That’s not a justification for the immoral aspects you’re talking about above, but it is a reminder that even someone who can’t be regarded as straightforwardly pro-life can recognize some of the horror in a process (experimenting on embryos) that many would encourage us to believe is ethically neutral.

  21. To Proteios1 – According to Genecure who describes the reprogramming using a lentivirus – they admit it works using moral sources: ” Because lentiviruses permanently integrate into the target cell’s genome, lentiviral vectors allow for stable long-term expression of the gene. Numerous reports demonstrate stable expression of reporter genes for greater than nine months. Additionally, unlike commonly used onco-retroviral vectors, where transcriptional silencing of the gene has been observed in numerous reports, no transcriptional silencing has been observed with lentiviral vectors. Thus, use of lentiviral vectors may overcome the challenges hindering current gene transfer technologies. Lentiviral-based gene transfer technology can be used to efficient deliver the DNA of interest into embryonic stems cells of virtually any cell type including mammalian and non-mammalian cells.” Does that help?

  22. Awwww, poor katolicks….

    Welcome to the 21st Century. We who have cast off superstitions have evolved to a better place.
    We understand that any “rights” or privileges are granted by those in power, not a sky thingy. Might DOES make right. Ends DO justify means. Political power DOES flow out of the barrel of a gun. “Turn the other cheek” just gets you 2 slapped cheeks.

    Those in power grant rights to sentient beings, not just living cells. (i.e. kidney cells are alive, but they will never be sentient.) An embryo, a fetus, a newborn is alive, but not yet fully sentient.
    Definition: Sentient: an alert cognitive state in which you are aware of yourself and your situation. Ability to feel, communicate, and act independently of others.
    The population of Europe has rejected your ethics and the American society has too.
    Give it up.

  23. “We understand that any “rights” or privileges are granted by those in power, not a sky thingy. Might DOES make right. Ends DO justify means. Political power DOES flow out of the barrel of a gun. “Turn the other cheek” just gets you 2 slapped cheeks.”

    It sounds more Wagnerian in the original German.

  24. According to the leading biography on Pasteur:

    Absolute faith in God and in Eternity, and a conviction that the power for good given to us in this world will be continued beyond it, were feelings which pervaded his whole life; the virtues of the gospel had ever been present to him. Full of respect for the form of religion which had been that of his forefathers, he came simply to it and naturally for spiritual help in these last weeks of his life.

    The troll should change his handle to Mengele.

  25. “We who have cast off superstitions have evolved to a better place.”

    “National Socialist and Christian concepts are incompatible. The Christian Churches build upon the ignorance of men and strive to keep large portions of the people in ignorance because only in this way can the Christian Churches maintain their power. On the other hand, National Socialism is based on scientific foundations. Christianity’s immutable principles, which were laid down almost two thousand years ago, have increasingly stiffened into life-alien dogmas. National Socialism, however, if it wants to fulfill its task further, must always guide itself according to the newest data of scientific researches.”

    Martin Bormann, Chief of the Nazi Party Chancellery, 1942

  26. I’m quite dense. I thought Dr. Pasteur was being sacrcastic.

    “Those in power grant rights to sentient beings . . .”

    Those in power (that think thusly) deny rights to sentient beings, too.

  27. There is an excellent book out called Promises of New Biotechnologies,

    Authored by Edith Breburda
    Preface by William E. May

    In today’s world, the creation of genetically engineered plants, the cloning of animals,
    and the introduction of new reproductive
    technologies are being promoted as keys
    to a bright future.
    “Promises of New Biotechnologies” serves
    as a comprehensive and well-referenced
    introduction to important technologies
    with worldwide consequences. The book
    presents a wide range of opinions in the current
    debate about genetically modified food sources
    (crops and animals), and humans. The author
    has extensive experience and broad knowledge
    in these topics. This book provides excellent
    information and discusses ethical issues in
    the context of new biotechnologies.
    The purpose of the book is to help non-scientists
    to understand the developments in genetic
    engineering and in reproductive technology.
    It is a well-written, easy-to-read, major resource
    for an international perspective on the issues
    surrounding biotechnology and genetic engineering.

    Publication Date:
    Sep 29 2011
    0615548288 / 9780615548289
    Page Count:
    Binding Type:
    US Trade Paper
    Trim Size:
    6″ x 9″
    Black and White
    Related Categories:
    Science / Life Sciences / General

  28. To “Dr. P.,” In the United States of America, our Declaration of Independence states that we are endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights, not by government. You are correct, we are not Europe–our forefathers came here to escape tyranny and persecution and practice freedom of religion. You have the right to practice no religion, too, and our Constitution protects you in that, as well, unless you enfringe on others’ rights: such as the barbaric satanic form of bloodletting in child sacrifice. One day, this country will realize, as did the late, brilliant Dr. Bernard Nathanson, M.D. who founded NARAL, that the unborn are sentient beings who flee from the abortionist’s instruments as seen in ultrasound. We will see and repent as he did or we will be destroyed, for, for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. We reap what we sow. That is Natural Law and it will ultimately prevail, so help us God, for we need the Hand of Divine Providence now to turn us from our evil ways through the hands of modern day child sacrificers. May we turn to Him now before it is too late. I pray for you, as I pray for us all. God have mercy on us!

  29. I fully agree with the aspect that it is wrong to create induced pluripotent stem cells using material from intentionally aborted fetuses. However, I’m at a loss to understand why the proteins being introduced into the adult stem cells to create the ipscs need to be taken from cell lines derived from aborted fetuses. Is it simply that those are the “handy sources” available (let’s face it, many researchers in this area lack the moral development to see the sanctity in all human life so they are not likely to be concerned about the source)? Does the process not work with proteins derived from other sources? I personally cannot determine the answer from browsing through the published stem cell literature in journals as I have no background in this area. However, it would appear that this is the question that needs to be answered.

  30. Donald absolutely NOT necessary – you hit the nail on the head – aborted fetal material is plentiful and easy. As I posted earlier to Proteios1 – they admit it works using moral sources: “Lentiviral-based gene transfer technology can be used to efficient deliver the DNA of interest into embryonic stems cells of virtually any cell type including mammalian and non-mammalian cells.” Does that help?

  31. Hey guys, a quick clarification. A couple of the commenters above have talked about this technique involving “adult stem cells.” Adult stem cells do NOT come from embryos–and they aren’t adult cells that get turned into induced pluripotent stem cells using materials derived from embryos, either. See the NIH: http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/basics4.asp Adults have them naturally; they’re what gets used in bone marrow transplants. It’s confusing because they’re named stem cells too, but if you hear about work on “adult stem cells”, it’s a different thing than what we’re discussing here.

    As far as I can tell from the paper in Cell that won the Nobel, the embryo-derived cells were just used to grow viruses in, because viruses invade cells. Then they infected the adult skin cells with the viruses, which carried genes into the adult skin cells that made them act like embryonic stem cells. I am not enough of a scientist to know whether you can get decent numbers of virus out of other cell types, or if there’s another way to get the genes into the cells (electroporation?) But I certainly hope so. After all, it has been years since this paper came out; lots of stuff may have happened since then.

    We need an expert here. Proteios1, do you know much about transfection?

  32. As a cell biologist, I’m familiar with transfection – the short answer is that HEK-293 cells are easy to grow and transfect. That, combined with the fact that they are a longstanding and well-characterized cell line has led to their being very widely used. One particular use is as a packaging cell line for adenoviruses, which are used to transfect genes of interest into cultured cells.

    These viruses would normally inject their DNA into a cell, which would essentially reprogram the cell’s machinery to manufacture more viruses, which eventually burst free and go on to infect other cells. The viruses commonly used in research labs have been modified so that they can deliver the DNA, but are lacking crucial genes which are involved in their ability to generate new viruses. This makes them safer to work with, but they still have to be propagated somehow. Therefore, a population of HEK-293 cells was modified to include the viral propagation genes missing in the viruses themselves. This way, a batch of viruses expressing your gene of interest can be grown up using the packaging cell line, then used to transfect other cells without being able to propagate further. The upside of this is that it makes working with these viruses safer for lab workers. The downside is that the packaging cell line comes from an aborted human.

    A lot of the issues here come back to industry standards: if researchers have something that works, they are reluctant to spend resources on replacing it with something else. I believe that the Nobel Prize to Dr. Yamanaka is a positive thing for precisely this reason: it has the potential to influence future standards (and funding) away from human embryonic stem cells and toward alternatives that will not require the loss of additional lives.

    In the meantime, the reality is that a large percentage of labs which work with cultured cells have HEK-293 cells or derivatives of them in their stocks, or at the very least, use reagents such as adenoviruses that were propagated using that packaging system. While I encourage the development and use of alternatives, I think it’s worth pointing out that the specific instances of HEK-293 cell use that have been brought to the public’s attention as an ethical issue are only the tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to biomedical research. Avoiding any residual contact with them as a researcher is a bit like trying to ensure that not one cent of your money goes toward an entity which supports abortion in any way, the key difference being that in the latter instance, future lives are at stake.

  33. Chelsea – please see previous comments. It is not at all necessary to use aborted fetal cell lines – and Rebecca – as stated in our response – they have gone way beyond just HEK cells to Detroit 551, MRC-5, MEL-h1 and fresh aborted fetal liver and lungs from 18-22 week gestation aborted babies. There are several moral cell lines that work just as well – ie, COS, CHO, BHK – well established and readily available!

  34. Thank you Chelsea for posting a link to my clarification. I will put an excerpt here:

    “Some readers have taken [my analogy] to mean that the researchers are not morally responsible for using HEK 293. That is not at all what I meant. I was arguing from the pro-lifer’s prospective, not from the scientists’ perspective. What I meant was that while we pro-lifers find vaccines a moral good, we object to the use of cell lines of illicit origin in their production. I should have been more clear that I meant that while many pro-lifers believe that iPSC technology is a moral good, we object to the use of cell lines of illicit origin to produce viruses used in the process.

    I apologize for any confusion I have caused. Researchers are responsible for finding alternatives to cell line of illicit origin in their research. Period.”

    Thank-you Debi for pointing out there are alternatives to cell lines of illicit origin.

    On any posts I plan on invesitgating to the best of my ability which cell lines were used in the reprogramming process and if they are objectionable, then I will point that out.

    But again I think it is critical for pro-lifers to be very precise about what we are objecting to lest we be misunderstood. In this case it is the use cell lines of illicit origin and not the iPSC technology itself which can proceed without that particular moral stain if researchers choose to use alternatives. It is, of course, our job to keep asking them to do so.

  35. Debi, thanks for the comment. I hope you won’t mind if f I push you a little with a pretty technical question. 🙂 Rebecca, feel free to jump in too. You see, I’m a college senior in the middle of applying to biomedical engineering Ph.D. programs, and in the areas I’m interested in it’s very likely I could be asked to work with some sort of embryo-derived cell line. This article honestly shook me up. I’m trying hard to figure out up front which research activities do and don’t work require you with them so I don’t end up having to tell my lab no, I won’t do this thing you all want to do that would get us all published…although maybe that’s impossible if you’re going to work with human cells.

    From my neophyte’s knowledge of the situation, I can guess at two potential disadvantages of the cell lines Debi named versus the embryonic-derived HEK cells. First is that all Debi’s cell lines are derived from animals. Sometimes viruses that infect animals cannot infect people and vice versa. Can you grow retroviruses for human transfection applications in non-human cell lines? Second, Rebecca mentioned that the reason researchers like HEK293s is that they’ve been genetically engineered so that the viruses can reproduce in them. Are there other, non-embryonic cell lines that have been modified in the same way, or is it feasible to do that yourself in-house?

  36. Chelsea…no – there is not a problem using the animal cell lines. The retrovirus use in reprogramming works in virtually “all mammalian and non-mammalian cell lines” according to the scientists do the research. You are going to be in a difficult position in the labs most likely – and you may want to contact Dr Theresa Deisher a Catholic adult stem cell scientist and founder of Sound Choice Pharmaceutical to discuss the programs they have for graduate and under-graduates in their labs. They use NO immoral cell lines in research. See their website at http://www.soundchoice.org

  37. Chelsea (Zimmerman) and Rebecca (Taylor),

    Thank you for the clarification!


    Thank you for all the information.

    I encourage everyone to read Debi’s links and research at her website on this issue thoroughly, as she has been following it for many years and has repeatedly explained why we need to keep demanding ethical materials and ethical research.


  38. There is a question here that is emerging. Surely it’s nothing new to people who have followed this issue for a long time, but it’s just becoming clear to me.

    There’s a distinction between the 1) technique itself of reprogramming cells, and 2) how the technique is done and what materials are used.

    When I first read about this Nobel Prize, it seemed that the way the technique IS DONE defines the technique ITSELF. It is done with immorally obtained materials; therefore, the technique is not morally praiseworthy.

    But I see that some people separate the two, so the question becomes:

    IF the procedure could be done using morally licit materials, IS the procedure itself moral?

    I can see that it might be moral if it were only used to find cures. However, why should we believe it will end there? Is it reasonable to expect that it will even find cures for any diseases? Or could it be that this is just what we are being told so they can really get closer to the un-holy grail of research – cloning designer babies? Gamete-less reproduction?

    Sharing an article Debi shared with me.
    “The Moral Frontiers of Stem Cell Research”

  39. wow.

    “Let us not forget same sex couples. This discovery could also lead to gay men in same sex relationships having the ability to create an offspring completely from just the 2 donors DNA. Skin cells from one of the men can be used to create the egg, and sperm, or sperm created from the skin cells of the other man can be used to fertilize the egg in-vitro, only leaving the surrogate uterus for implantation question on the table.

    If Scientists ever discover a way to create a viable womb that eliminates the need for a women’s uterus, it would be a shocking discovery, one that may lead us down a path of no return.

    As with all things, this discovery is not a question of if, only when.”

    There’s a parallel here. A long time ago when I was debating with a “pro-choice” person, she asked me if I would support artificial wombs since that would mean that no babies ever needed to be aborted again.

    I had to think about it for a while.

    But, I said, “No, I don’t support research for artificial wombs.”

    Why? Because developing such things requires babies to be used as research materials, knowing some would be killed. Ends don’t justify the means.

    Isn’t iPSC technology the same thing? The only way they got there was to first have studied embryonic stem cells. If we could go back to the time before any research ever began on ESCs and someone would have asked me if I thought we should develop iPSC someday, I’d have said no for the same reason I rejected research on artificial wombs.

    We can’t go back in time… but still. It is troubling that we only have the iPSC technology because there was first ESCs research.

  40. I actually have a biomedical background and followed the work of Dr. Yamanaka. It was truly a (biologically) interesting feat. Now, here is my question. What if iPSC research can be continued in the absence of using illicitly obtained material? I have read papers where the authors wanted to reprogram one cell type to another cell type (a skin cell to a heart cell) and successfully performed that. Due to the nature of the studies, they did NOT require control hESC cells. In the at-large stem cell field (wherein researchers are actively studying stem cells, their biology etc), the field relies on such controls as hESCs. However, Dr. Yamanaka’s work far extends beyond ESC studies, one can reprogram one benign cell type to another (I guess the term would be directed reprogramming). Is this morally licit? One of the big issues raised in the article are that hESCs were used to verify the “stemness” of a cell, however, some lines of research can still benefit without having to go down the slippery slope to verify stemness. Also, there are multiple ways of delivering the four factors to a cell without the need of using illicitly obtained biological material, and theoretically safe methods at that.

  41. I am a scientist by training and I’ve read both Dr. Gurdon and Dr. Yamanaka’s papers that won the noble prize. While this aspect may be disturbing, we should not dismiss iPS cells entirely. There are multiple methods of deriving them. Such methods don’t necessarily employ the use of genetic material as described on the American Catholic blog post. In fact some methods may involve the use of small molecules (small, non-DNA, non-protein compounds) that can induce expression of pluripotency genes. So don’t dismiss iPS cells in their entirety. There are licit means to derive them and they present the best hope for stem cell therapies because we can produce tissues from a patients own cells and reduce the risk of immunologic rejection.

  42. Just a comment,
    In the bottom line section you mentioned ” uses cells grown from electively aborted children”. It would be more accurate to say child like you did in the second paragraph, but 273 is a reminder that 272 abortions preceded him/her.

    Thank you for creating awareness and promoting dignity and respect for 273 babies.

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