Shinya Yamanaka received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012 for the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, which allow for ethically impeccable research. Yamanaka, a Japanese born in 1962 and a Doctor of Philosophy as well as a Doctor of Medicine, chose this line of work after considering that there was no substantial difference between embryonic cells and his own daughters.
Twenty-five years ago, they said that research with human embryos was necessary to achieve medical miracles. It was immoral, but anyone who raised objections was subjected to public ridicule. When in 2001 George W. Bush prohibited public funding for such experiments, it became a political target, the extent of which he details in his memoirs, Decision Points.
A quarter of a century later, we know that all that destruction of embryos served no purpose for science, it bore no fruit.
An article by E.C. Tarne published on October 30, 2023, on the Lozier Institute’s website addresses this issue. It is titled “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research 25 Years On,” and Sabina Frendimara provides a summary on the Italian pro-life portal Provita & Famiglia.
It is important to understand the sense in creating babies in a laboratory only to dismember them for the sake of “progress” in “science.”
Currently, there is scarcely any talk about research with human embryonic stem cells (hESC), but twenty-five years ago, when a group of American scientists first isolated them, they were at the center of political and scientific debate in the United States.
Their ability to differentiate as the embryo grows and become constituent parts of all the organs and tissues necessary for its development earned them the nickname “pluripotent,” and researchers envisioned possible beneficial applications in the field of cellular regeneration: “The list of potential therapeutic uses is almost endless,” said Lawrence Goldstein, a pharmacology professor at the University of California, San Diego, in 1999.
The optimistic prospects for curing Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer made these investigations eagerly anticipated, with the belief that they would herald the beginning of a new era in the history of medicine. It was even speculated that the state of California would reap enormous benefits from royalties derived from treatments with hESC.
The mirage of such results, the belief that they could be achieved in a short time (Harold Varmus, then-director of the National Institutes of Health and one of the open supporters of the research, estimated in 1998 that the first successes could be achieved within two years, ten at most), and the massive advertising campaign on the subject, supported by influential scientists and public figures, led in 2004 to the approval of Proposition 71 in California, which provided for the allocation of state funds totaling $3 billion over ten years to support stem cell research, especially hESC research. A special agency was also created to oversee the distribution of this huge sum of money: the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
The issue of embryonic stem cells was so hot twenty-five years ago that George W. Bush’s first televised address to Americans, who had taken office in January 2001, was on August 9 of that year and was about this issue. He made it clear that such research involves the destruction of human beings and, therefore, while there would be public funds for studying with 60 lines already created by private companies, no federal budget would be allocated to creating new lines.
Twenty-five years later, one wonders what went wrong: not only have we not witnessed the promised miraculous advances, but there are not even any clinical studies on the successful use of hESC, let alone the publicly announced flourishing benefits.
From the beginning, it was seen that, even considering their supposed therapeutic potential, research with human embryonic stem cells is, by its very nature, ethically questionable, since the only way to obtain human embryonic stem cells is through the destruction of a living human embryo. The mere act of harvesting these cells involves the destruction of the embryo.
Initially, it was thought that such concerns would be the exclusive preserve of the most conservative Christians, but even so, they were not easily dismissed.
As early as 1998, James Thomson, the first to obtain a line of human embryonic stem cells, admitted the ethical problems of research, which were later confirmed by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC), the first presidential commission to address the issue specifically. But everything continued.
This explains why such a massive and promising advertising campaign was necessary, which, however, was not enough to dispel the conscience problems raised by this research.
An attempt was then made to circumvent the problem by working with adult stem cells, but research with embryonic stem cells continued anyway, albeit with disappointing results compared to the promised expectations, to the point that today most of the research grants awarded by the CIRM -the California Stem Cell Agency- are allocated to research with non-embryonic stem cells, while medical advances derived from the use of adult stem cells continue.
Also contributing to the disappearance of hESC was the discovery in 2007 of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which five years later earned its discoverer, Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, the Nobel Prize: he had found a way to obtain embryonic-like pluripotent cells from normal somatic cells, such as skin cells, for example.
Shinya Yamanaka explains the research prospects with iPSCs, which pose no ethical problems. Video link here.
His discovery represented an important paradigm of how science can proceed ethically, as he decided not to work with hESC, intending to avoid lethal experiments with human embryos. This decision, which earned him public recognition, matured from his observation of a human embryo under the microscope years earlier, in which he had the intuition to recognize the dignity of the human being: “Suddenly I realized the little difference between this [the embryo] and my daughters… I thought: we cannot continue destroying embryos for our research. There has to be another way.” Determined not to compromise, he used mice in his research on cell reprogramming.
His success, coupled with the fact that medical research with adult and induced pluripotent stem cells is advancing, unlike what is happening with research with embryonic stem cells, has shown that science and ethics, working together, can achieve results beyond imagination.
Only one concept remains to be clarified, in addition to what Tarne explains on the Lozier Institute’s website. If all human beings have the same dignity; if, therefore, even small human beings have the same dignity as larger ones, then it is never permissible to use a person. Nor is it permissible to use them for a good purpose. It would not be permissible to kill a child even to cure others.
Furthermore, it is not allowed to kill just to carry out experiments that have not produced results in 25 years.