When Shinya Yamanaka was announced as one of two winners of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology on Oct. 8, many Catholics and other pro-life advocates cheered. 

Shinya Yamanaka
Dr. Shinya Yamanaka researches human stem cells in this 2008 photo. Last month, he won a Nobel Prize for his research. Newscom photo

Yamanaka, a scientist from Kyoto University, five years ago discovered a process that gives adult cells the same ability that embryonic stem cells have to turn into any kind of cells in the body. He shares the award with John Gurdon, who 50 years ago used frog cells to show that the nucleus of an intestinal cell could be implanted into an egg and develop into a normal tadpole, thus reversing the path of cell development.  

After the Nobel Prize was announced, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community said this “is an important milestone in recognizing the key role that non-embryonic stem cells play in the development of new medical therapies, as alternatives to human embryonic stem cells.” 

Yamanaka’s breakthrough “put human embryonic stem cell research largely out of business,” Father Thomas Berg was quoted as saying by the Catholic News Agency. 

But Father Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., acknowledged that not all pro-lifers were thrilled by the selection. While Yamanaka’s work has nearly eliminated the research market for embryonic stem cell lines, some of his early research relied on what Father Berg called “tainted” cells, and there is also the possibility that the results of Yamanaka’s work could be turned to immoral purposes. 

Still, Father Berg said, Yamanaka’s move away from embryonic stem cell research is, in itself, laudable, especially given the way Yamanaka came to decide to look for a way to conduct research without destroying embryos. 

In a 2007 interview with The New York Times, Yamanaka said he was moved to start the project when he looked at an embryo through a microscope and realized that his two daughters had been embryos not so very long ago. 

“When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” he said. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.” 

‘Genuine breakthrough’

The way he found, detailed in a 2007 article in the journal Cell, involved changing four genetic “triggers” in adult cells, which changed them back, or “reprogrammed” them, into cells that had the ability to become any kind of tissue in the human body. These reprogrammed cells are known as “induced pluripotent stem cells,” or iPS cells. 

Catholic Nobel Winner
Stanford University’s Brian Kobilka, one of two scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last month, is a Catholic grade school graduate from Little Falls, Minn. He and Robert Lefkowitz, professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., were recognized for their work to identify and isolate a particular family of cell receptors called G-protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs, which carry signals from outside stimuli to cells of the human body. Kobilka is a member of the Catholic Community at Stanford, which is in the Diocese of San Jose, Calif. 

They allowed scientists to continue to work on the possibilities of using stem cells to generate tissue without the need to destroy embryos. 

Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, explained it like this: “The new way of making stem cells that Yamanaka has developed, sometimes called ‘reprogramming,’ is a genuine breakthrough. It expands the number of ways we can study developmental and biological questions without having to use human embryos.”  

The Church has always opposed embryonic stem cell research because there is no way to get embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos, which all have their own unique human DNA. However, the Church has supported scientists working with “adult stem cells” — a term that includes everything from umbilical cord blood to bone marrow.  

Yamanaka’s discovery has allowed scientists to use adult cells in ways that only embryonic cells could be used up to that point. For example, scientists could theoretically use skin cells from a patient with a spinal cord injury to generate new nerve cells to repair the damage.  

“A discovery of this magnitude, coupled with a strong ethical vision, certainly has the potential to move us beyond the contentious moral quagmire of destroying human embryos,” Father Pacholczyk said. “Reprogramming is also important because it provides an alternative approach to ‘therapeutic cloning,’ a complex and immoral procedure used to obtain patient-specific stem cells. Reprogramming provides patient-specific stem cells as well, but without using women’s eggs, without killing embryos, and without crossing moral lines.” 

Moral questions

But not all potential uses of induced pluripotent stem cells are benign. One example would be using the technique to create reproductive cells that could, in turn, be used to manufacture embryos for research. 

“It’s a double-edged sword. It can lead to further technologies that are morally problematic,” Father Berg said.  

The beginning of Yamanaka’s work on induced pluripotent stem cells also has been called into question. The American Life League, for example, said it wants to know whether Yamanaka used tissue from aborted babies to accomplish the reprogramming of cells when he started this line of research. 

In a statement, American Life League President Judie Brown said: “We sound the alarm on stem cell reprogramming methods/experiments that may involve an influx of youthful DNA to adult stem cells, resulting in the creation of embryonic stem cells from modified adult stem cells. We demand to know the ethical considerations used by these scientists, their true motives, and the critical question of the source for the ‘youthful DNA.’ Are they using the genes of murdered preborn children or obtaining stem cells from fatty tissue, bone marrow, or the umbilical cord after the birth of a baby? Are these methods intended to heal sick patients or are they just newfound genetic engineering techniques for reproductive purposes?”

End of using embryos?

But Father Berg, who said he generally views Yamanaka’s work favorably, said pro-lifers must be pleased that the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells pushed most scientists involved in stem cell research to move away from using embryonic stem cells. They made that move for a number of reasons, Father Berg said, including the fact that the new research, which uses adult cells, is “more fascinating scientifically.” 

It is also more cost effective to eliminate the restrictions set up by the federal government for work with embryonic stem cells. The prohibition against using federal funding for embryonic stem cells means that scientists who accept federal funding for other fields of research would have to set up entirely separate laboratories for the work, Father Berg said. 

Father Pacholczyk isn’t ready to look for a future free of embryonic stem cell research. 

“His discovery … doesn’t eliminate the temptation to treat very young human beings as cogs and commodities in the assembly line of the medico-business industrial complex,” he said. “Modern research science still must clarify its moral vision and decide whether to continue to use the powers of science to oppress, or more accurately, to suppress the youngest members of the human family, or whether to reject such directly exploitative forms of research and instead chart an ethically sound path into the future, a path which can lean heavily on breakthroughs such as Dr. Yamanaka’s.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.