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.