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Ethical stem cell alternative advances

WASHINGTON (BP)–Researchers in China have shown that induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are as powerful as embryonic stem cells while avoiding their ethical problems.

Scientists in Shanghai and Beijing revealed July 23 they had created live mice from the skin cells of adult animals after reprogramming the cells into an embryonic-like state, The Washington Post reported. Their research produced at least 100 first-generation mice and hundreds of second-generation ones that were almost genetic matches for mice from which the iPS cells were extracted, according to The Post.

“This clearly says for the first time that iPS cells pass the most stringent test,” said Konrad Hochedlinger, a Harvard University stem cell researcher, according to The Post.

Many scientists have promoted embryonic stem cell research, because stem cells from embryos are pluripotent, meaning they can transform into any cell or tissue in the body. Embryonic stem cell research however, not only has failed to provide any therapies for human subjects, but it has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

With the publication of these studies in the journals Nature and Cell Stem Cell, iPS cells have been confirmed also to be pluripotent. Unlike embryonic stem cell research, iPS research does not involve embryos and is supported by pro-lifers.

The research is good news, and potentially bad news, a Southern Baptist bioethicist said.

“These experiments continue to demonstrate that the destruction of embryos is unnecessary to retrieve stem cells,” said C. Ben Mitchell, Graves professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. “So, in that sense, this is good news. And we can make all the mice we want using the procedure.

“The problems arise when these findings are applied to human research,” said Mitchell, who is a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “It would be unethical to subject human embryos to potentially deadly experiments just to see if they work. The only ethical justification for experimenting on an unborn human being is for that person’s own good.”

“Dr. Oz” of Oprah fame told a nationwide TV audience he believes the “stem cell debate is dead” because of the promise of iPS research.

In addition to iPS stem cells, adult stem cells provide an ethical alternative and have produced therapies for at least 73 ailments in human subjects, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. Such results have been achieved even though adult stem cells are considered multipotent, meaning they can convert into many but not all cells or tissues in the body.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.