By Michael Foust
The scientist who led the team that cloned Dolly the sheep has urged fellow researchers to forego embryonic stem cell research — which he says is fraught with practical problems — and pursue more promising types of research.
That’s because he believes other research likely will overtake embryonic stem cell research.
Ian Wilmut spoke to a crowd of stem cell researchers Nov. 29 in La Jolla, Calif., telling them that because embryonic stem cells tend to lead to tumors, scientists should spend their time on non-embryonic forms of research, particularly on a new method called direct reprogramming. In direct reprogramming, scientists avoid stem cells altogether and, for instance, reprogram a skin cell directly into a nerve cell. Researchers have had success doing just that with lab mice. It has the support of ethicists who have opposed embryonic research.
“I’m not quite sure why this hasn’t been pursued more actively,” said Wilmut, who led the team that cloned Dolly the sheep in the 1990s.
Wilmut’s speech was reported by the North County Times (Escondido, Calif.), which paraphrased him as saying direct reprogramming would provide the benefits of embryonic stem cell research without the risks. The government, he added, likely won’t spend money on embryonic research if a safer method is available.
If successful, direct reprogramming would turn the political and ethical debate upside down, making moot discussions over which types of stem cells are most promising. Wilmut was speaking in the same state where California voters in 2004 approved a 10-year, $3 billion investment into embryonic stem cell research. No cures have been found.
With embryonic stem cell research, scientists try to take stem cells from embryos and turn them into specific cells for the body. The process is opposed by pro-lifers because it destroys the embryo. In direct programming, scientists — in theory — would take a skin cell and simply reprogram it into, say, a nerve cell, without involving either embryos or stem cells of any kind.
In the results of one mice lab experiment released in 2010, fibroblast cells — found in connective tissue — were reprogrammed into nerve cells.
David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, called direct programming a “booming area where you might say they cut out the middle man.” Even induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, long championed by pro-lifers, can cause tumors, Prentice said. In iPS research, scientists change an adult stem into embryo-like stem cells.
“iPS cells are ethically OK, but because they act like an embryonic stem cell, frankly are still not safe,” Prentice said. “Wilmut is saying there is an even better way that gets around the ethical problems but also bypasses much of the safety issues.”
Significantly, Wilmut wasn’t making his argument on ethical grounds but mere feasibility.
“This is Dolly’s daddy, the guy who cloned Dolly the sheep,” Prentice said. “He’s turned away from cloning, he’s turned away from embryonic stem cells, and he’s pointing towards reprogrammed cells.”
Upon learning of the 2010 lab mice experiment, ethicist Wesley J. Smith called it a “holy cow” moment. Much work remains to be done, he wrote before adding: “Good ethics do produce good science.”
It has not been a good year for supporters of embryonic stem cell research, which took a big hit in mid-November when Geron, the company that launched the nation’s first government-approved embryonic stem cell trial, announced it was halting the trial and shifting its funding into cancer research. Funding for embryonic research, it said, was scarce. Pro-lifers said the lack of funding showed that the promise of embryonic research was false.
Research using adult stem cells, meanwhile, has produced 73 medical treatments, according to a tally by the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics. Nearly all of the high-profile stem cell treatments involving well-known patients have involved adult stem cells. If successful, direct programming likely would far surpass the achievements of adult stem cells. — Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.