Stem Cell Breakthrough: A Scientific and Ethical Leap Forward

Eric Metaxas October 24, 2012 Thirteen years ago, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese pharmacologist and researcher, made a social call to a friend’s fertility clinic. His friend invited him to look at some human embryos through a microscope. What Yamanaka saw set him on a path that culminated in a Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. And in the process has won him praise from the pro-life community. As Yamanaka later told The New York Times, “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 search for “another way” took eight years, but eventually Yamanaka and his colleagues at Kyoto University discovered a way to turn “adult skin cells into the equivalent of human embryonic stem cells without using an actual embryo.” Using methods first developed with laboratory mice, Yamanaka and company “reprogrammed” the adult skin cells by adding “genes called master regulators to the skin cells’ chromosomes. These genes can change the cell’s behavior by turning other genes on and off.” When the findings were announced five years ago, the moral implications were, if anything, even clearer than the scientific ones. The New York Times, in a bit of understatement, said that his research offered a “possible way around the thorny moral issues that have slowed the study of stem cells.” What the Times thought about the destruction of embryos was, of course, left unsaid. Others were not as reticent: the Vatican followed his work closely and publicized it. Cardinal Justin Rigali, the chairman of the Vatican’s Pro-Life Committee, preached a homily in which he told the story of Yamanaka peering into the microscope. According to Rigali, “God can use a helpless embryo to change a human heart.” The National Right to Life Committee urged that Yamanaka be awarded the Nobel Prize. Between 2009 and 2012, Yamanaka won three prestigious scientific prizes. Each of them cited the ethical, as well as scientific, impact of his work. Then on October 8, he won the “big one,” the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, which he shares with John Gurdon of Great Britain. As William Saletan of Slate magazine pointed out, the announcement completely omitted any reference to the moral and ethical implications of Yamanaka’s work. They merely cited him for developing “new tools” with which to fight diseases. As Saletan also noted, much of the mainstream media followed the Nobel committee’s leading: The New York Times, which commented, albeit somewhat begrudgingly, on the implications five years ago, completely omitted any such reference this time. If I were of a more suspicious bent, I might suspect that some people would rather ignore the obvious, and look silly in the process, than acknowledge that pro-life objections to embryonic stem-cell research stand on firm scientific, as well as moral, grounds. Even when the Nobel laureate himself has acknowledged the moral considerations that motivated the research, they insist on ignoring the connection. Well, consider this a shout from the housetops: Saletan is right when he says that Yamanaka deserves an additional Nobel in ethics for tearing “down the wall between preserving embryos and saving lives.”  

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