Caption: HEK 293 cells. Nobel Prize recipient Dr. Yamanaka realized "there was such a small difference between (embryos) and (his) daughters. We can't keep destroying embryos."
By Suzana Kovacic
Special to The B.C. Catholic
This year's Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded to two researchers whose work contributed to achievements in reprogramming adult cells to behave like stem cells derived from human embryos. This allows stem cells to be obtained without destroying embryos.
This work has been lauded, especially in the Catholic media, as not just a scientific achievement but also a moral one because, in the words of one observer, it has helped to put human embryonic stem-cell research largely out of business.
Dr. Yamanaka, one of the recipients of the award, stated that the inspiration for his research came during a visit to a fertility clinic, where he was peering through a microscope at a human embryo.
He stated, "When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can't keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way."
The "other way" that Dr. Yamanaka contributed to was the development of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). While iPSCs themselves are morally licit, close scrutiny of the research reveals that the methodology involved in developing iPSCs has been morally problematic.
In the lab, cell reprogramming is achieved by introducing genes into a cell using viruses as a delivery method. The viruses have been modified to prevent propagation of the virus in order to make them safe for the laboratory researcher to use. These viruses can only propagate in a specific cell line.
In Dr. Yamanaka's research, virus propagation was performed in the 293ft cell line. This line is derived from the HEK 293 cell line. HEK stands for human embryonic kidney.
Dr. Alex van der Eb, who was involved in the development of HEK 293, has given testimony that the cell line was obtained in 1972 from a fetus obtained from an abortion.
While one may argue that there is no cooperation by today's researcher in an abortion that took place 40 years ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has affirmed that "there is a duty to refuse to use such 'biological material' even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the abortion.
"This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one's own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life" (Dignitas Personae, 35).
It should be noted that morally licit alternatives to HEK 293 are available, yet HEK 293 cells remain the cell line of choice for many researchers because they are easy to work with, well established, and readily available.
Evidently researchers have failed to raise concerns with the companies that develop these cell lines, thus providing a market for those who traffic in the cell line.
Validation of iPSCs poses another morally problematic area of the research. If one is to say that an iPSC behaves like an embryonic stem cell, one needs to do experiments to compare the two cell types.
While Dr. Yamanaka's research used data from an existing database for his comparison studies, other researchers performing similar research have indeed validated their cells by direct comparison with cell lines that involve destruction of human embryos.
Caution must therefore be invoked when hailing the development of iPSCs. While iPSCs can be further developed in a manner that avoids morally problematic research, the Nobel Prize was awarded to research that did not always affirm with clarity the value of human life.
Suzana Kovacic, who holds a PhD in biochemistry, lives in Burnaby.