Dr. Yamanaka’s Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, Should He Be Awarded Nobel Prize for Ethics too!

Dr Yamanaka induced pluripotent stem cells

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Image courtesy: http://vectorblog.org


Dr. Yamanaka who is sharing this years’ Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine with Sir John B. Gurdon is being lauded as a person who has brought to fore the plausibility of adult stem cell research as opposed to embryo stem cell research which has always been embroiled in ethical controversies. This is the first time that stem cell research and cloning has been awarded a Nobel Prize. Catholic leaders all over are looking at the award as a triumph of ethics. To quote a few statements,

The Anscombe Bioethics Centre, UK, and Ireland described the award as, ‘achievement of great ethical significance’ in TheBostonPilot. Director of Anscombe Center, Oxford, David Jones is quoted as saying,

This technique offers hope of progress in stem-cell research without relying on the unethical destruction of human embryos. This is science at its best: both beautiful and ethical.

So, what are induced Pluripotent Cells (iPSCs)?

Induced pluripotent stem cells are a type of pluripotent stem cells artificially derived from a non-pluripotent cell, like an adult somatic cell, by inducing a ‘forced’ expression of specific genes. (Wikipedia)

Simply put, these are cells that can change into different cell types of the body. However, they cannot form tissues or grow into fetus or baby.

What did Dr. Yamanaka do?

Dr. Yamanaka opted not to take pluripotent stem cells from the inner stem cell mass of embryos; instead, he reprogrammed adult stem cells to go back to their primitive stem state or pluripotent state. Dr. Yamanaka introduced a set of four genes via a virus into the nucleus of an adult cell that walked adult cells back to pluripotency. These induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) can then be programmed to become another type of body cell. For example, researchers can take skin cells and reprogram it to become lung cells!

This gets a big thumbs up from the ethics committees since iPSCs are an alternative to cloning and can be obtained without having to create and destroy human embryo.

The work is not without its score of lags, since these iPSCs cannot be used (at least as of now) to treat patients. They would largely help doctors and scientists study progression and treatment of diseases by creating model tissues. iPSCs would definitely save the scientists time and keep them on the side of ethics by allowing them to reprogram cells into pluripotency and then differentiate these into cells of desired interest, as opposed to growing a mouse with desired human disease in it. iPSCs can be frozen and continued to be grown in culture giving scientists a continuous supply of desired cells for testing drugs and treatments.

The larger picture of iPSCs is something to be happy about in terms of advancement in medicine staying within the boundaries of ethics! So yes, Dr. Yamanaka has definitely shown the scientific world a new source for stem cells.

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