Stem Cells from Skin Cells Wins Nobel Prize

by Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC on October 8, 2012

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This is so deserved! When Shinya Yamanaka visited an embryonic stem cell researcher and looked at embryos under a microscope, he thought of his daughters. That insight changed science history.

Yamanaka decided to see if he could create pluripotent stem cells — which can be differentiated into any type of body cell — without destroying human embryos, as thought would be required at the time. He succeeded, inventing a process whereby normal skin cells can be turned into pluripotent cells, known as reprogramming.

He has now won the Nobel Prize for that brilliant work, sharing it with a biologist whose insights working with frogs led to the cloning of Dolly the sheep, knowledge that also aided Yamanaka’s work. From the USA Today story:

A British researcher and a Japanese scientist won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine on Monday 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. Scientists want to build on the work by John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka to create replacement tissues for treating diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes, and for studying the roots of diseases in the laboratory — without the ethical dilemma posed by embryonic stem cells.

It was biological alchemy, like lead into gold.

Ironically, before IPSCs, scientists insisted that human cloning would be the best way to further regenerative medicine by making a cloned embryo of a patient, and then destroying it to derive stem cell lines for use in drug testing, disease study, and eventually, treatments. They mocked President Bush for arguing that scientists were creative and ingenious enough to find an ethical way forward towarad that end which did not involve the destruction of human life. Indeed, those who opposed human cloning and supported Bush’s minor funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research were castigated as “anti science,” when in fact, the issue was always an ethics debate, which is not the same thing at all.

Yamanaka proved those prognosticators wrong too. Human cloning has not been accomplished. But we are already reaping many of the benefits promised from that technology — without manufacturing and destroying human life. IPSCs — tailor made from disease-specific patients — are being used to test drug and study diseases. (They can’t be used in treatments, like embryonic stem cells, because could cause tumors — the downside of pluripotency. But adult stem cells are forging ahead strongly in human trials.)

Even strong proponents of human cloning and embryonic stem cell research get it:

Yamanaka deserves extra credit for overcoming fierce objections to the creation of embryos for research, reviving the field, said Julian Savulescu, director of Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. “Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all,” Savulescu said. “He deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but a Nobel Prize for Ethics.”

This may be the first time I have ever agreed with Julian Savulescu.

So, bravo Dr. Yamanaka! You proved that good ethics leads to splendid science.

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