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Yamanaka, gentle slayer of cloning, takes the nobel prize for Medicine

Your scribe was giving a talk to a group of doctors in Sydney last night on “Ethical stem cell science & the Death of Cloning”, and on entering the warm and welcoming Irish pub I was informed of the grand news that Shinya Yamanaka had been awarded the Nobel prize for medicine.

The citation did not say it was for slaying the monster of human cloning, or for managing to achieve the good things of stem cell research without ever messing with human eggs or creating and killing human embryos. Never mind. Yamanaka has done something so important for the protection of humanity from the depredations of anti-human science that he should have had the Peace Prize too. Or the Ethics prize, as suggested in an entirely unexpected tribute from ultra-utilitarian Prof Julian Savulescu – a clone of Peter Singer, for those who know. What is unexpected, and very welcome indeed, is his respectful acknowledgement of the deep concerns so many of us have about the dehumanising effect of cloning and embryo experimentation. Quoted HERE at the BioEdge site:

“Yamanaka has taken people’s ethical concerns seriously about embryo research and modified the trajectory of research into a path that is acceptable for all. He deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but a Nobel Prize for Ethics.”

That is so unexpected from this hard-man of bioethics that is almost touching. And another touching moment in this very happy story is given at BioEdge:

What turned Yamanaka away from the group-think which goaded his colleagues into the swamp of human embryonic stem cell research? Perhaps his ethics… In an interview with the New York Times in 2007, Yamanaka remembered one day years before when he paid a social visit to a friend’s IVF clinic. There, he peered through a microscope. “When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realised there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” said the father of two. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”

Coverage of this great event does a fair job of honouring the near-alchemy magic of Yamanaka’s breakthrough, with the humble way in which he opted to find a way forward that did not violate human dignity:

Yamanaka got fully developed adult cells to create stem cells without the need for an embryo to be created – or destroyed. Yamanaka called his discovery “induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells”.

His work was hailed as a breakthrough because it demonstrated it was possible to sidestep the sticky ethical issue of embryonic stem cell research. Despite its huge promise, many balked at the idea of using – destroying – an embryo to get the important stem cells. It was less of a problem in animal experiments, but became a huge hurdle when moving to work on human cells. Religious conservatives, among others, objected and stem cell research was stymied.

“If embryo stem cell research is the only way to help patients, then I think that is what we should do,” Yamanaka once said. “At the same time… as a natural feeling, I do want to avoid the usage of human embryos… Human embryos are not like skin cells. They can be babies if transplanted. That is why we are doing what we are doing” with iPS cells.

We toasted you in our Sydney pub, Professor, for what you have given to this exciting field of research and – even more so – what you have done to deflect a great harm from our children’s generation.
Thank you, Shinya Yamanaka.
(With three of the Sydney docs last night: Olivia, Gabriel, Jovina)


Excerpt follows from my November 2011 Quadrant review “Cloning – the Blighted Science”:


The scientific landscape changed suddenly and irrevocably on the 21st November 2007, in what was described as “an earthquake for both the science and politics of stem cell research” [i]

On that day the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka published his breakthrough of iPSC “direct reprogramming”, creating the equivalent of cloned embryonic stem cells directly from the skin cells of a middle-aged woman,[ii] bypassing any need for eggs or embryos.

“This is the Holy Grail – to be able to take a few cells from a patient and then turn them into stem cells in the laboratory,” acknowledged Dr Robert Lanza, a cloning researcher from Advanced Cell Technology in Boston.[iii]

The clearest sign that a revolution was upon us was the headline in a British paper: “Dolly creator Prof Ian Wilmut shuns cloning”. The king of cloning, who had brought us the first cloned mammal and who held the license to clone human embryos in the UK, declared that he was abandoning the field he had founded:

Instead Prof Wilmut is backing direct reprogramming, the embryo-free route pursued by Prof Yamanaka, which he finds“100 times more interesting”… as well as “easier to accept socially.” [iv]

The other great pioneer of embryo research likewise deferred to the Yamanaka method. Professor James Thomson, the scientist who first identified human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in 1998, published a study on the same day as Yamanaka confirming that these new stem cells derived from human skin had every property of stem cells derived from embryos – but none of the ethical and political baggage.[v] He told theNew York Times it would not be long “before the stem cell wars are a distant memory”.

“A decade from now, this (controversy) will be just a funny historical footnote,” Dr Thomson said. More work remains, but he is confident that the path ahead is clear. “Isn’t it great to start a field and then to end it?”[vi]

This sense that one era had ended and another commenced in stem cell science was reinforced in a review of the Yamanaka revolution by Professor Martin Pera. He was formerly director of ESC research at the Australian National Stem Cell Centre and his article, “Stem cells: a new year and a new era” was published in Nature in January 2008:[vii]

Manipulating cells from adult human tissue, scientists have generated cells with the same developmental potential as embryonic stem cells. The research opportunities these exciting observations offer are limitless. The generation of induced pluripotent stem cells through direct reprogramming avoids the difficult ethical controversies surrounding the use of embryos for deriving stem cells.

The response was everywhere the same: this is marvellous science, and it gets rid of the social and ethical stress of obtaining eggs and exploiting embryos. The potential for this development to bypass the central ethical objection to cloning was recognized by Professor Loane Skene, former Chair of the Lockhart Review which advised the Australian government in 2005 to permit cloning. On the day Yamanaka’s iPSC research was published she told ABC radio:

What this does is take away the step of using the egg and creating the embryo which is particularly ethically contentious, and it offers the opportunity to get stem cells that are matched to a particular person.[viii]

In that succinct statement, one of our chief advocates for cloning reminds us of the goal that cloning failed to reach – getting stem cells that exactly match the patient – and acknowledges that this new method not only attains that goal, but is free from ethical concerns.

The new post-cloning era was summed up in January 2008 by a leading Australian researcher, Dr TJ Martin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne:

In the past few months the scientific situation has changed dramatically in ways that should make therapeutic cloning a historical peculiarity. iPSCs have been shown to have all the properties previously attributed to embryonic stem cells, and thus provide a means of preparing individually tailored pluripotent cells without the ethical problems involved in therapeutic cloning. To this must be added the fact that iPSCs can readily be prepared, whereas human therapeutic cloning has never been achieved. If it ever had been, it is such an inefficient process that it would always have required unacceptably large numbers of egg donations by women. There is no valid reason for any government to consider approval of therapeutic cloning that requires nuclear transfer into human eggs. Indeed, it would be prudent to have the 2006 federal legislation taken off the books. [ix]

In light of that authoritative summary we should ask the obvious question: What possible justification is there now for human cloning, given the success of the iPSC alternative? Who would take seriously the proposal that I obtain hundreds of eggs from women (at significant risk to their health) and spend vast amounts of research money in order to clone you into your identical twin embryo, in order to obtain pluripotent stem cells that match you genetically (something nobody has yet managed to achieve) when I could simply take a skin cell from your arm and obtain the equivalent stem cells easily and ethically using Yamanaka’s direct reprogramming?

……..Likewise, Time magazine asks whether there is anything left to argue over since Yamanaka’s breakthrough:

No embryos, no eggs, no hand-wringing over where the cells came from and whether it was ethical to make them in the first place. Yamanaka’s and Thomson’s work sidestepped that altogether, raising the tantalizing question: Is the long-raging stem-cell debate at last over? Yamanaka thinks it might be. Other giants of the field seem to agree.[x]

[i] Rolands J, Centre for Genetics & Society, Oakland CA at http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2007/1120/1

[ii] Yamanaka article athttp://www.cell.com/retrieve/pii/S0092867407014717 ; breaking story athttp://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/21/science/21stem.html?_r=2&ref=science&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

[iii] Dr Lanza comments at http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/11/21/2096427.htm?section=world

[iv] Prof Wilmut on abandoning cloning at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3314696/Dolly-creator-Prof-Ian-Wilmut-shuns-cloning.html

[v] Thomson article at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/318/5858/1917

[vi] Prof Thomson interview at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/22/science/22stem.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&oref=slogin&adxnnlx=1200529650-/3udVJCSOq5dSjn2cdoCJw

[vii] Pera MF. Stem cells. A new year and a new era. Nature. 2008 Jan 10;451(7175):135-6.

[viii] Prof Loane Skene comments re Yamanaka at http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/news/stories/s2096987.htm

[ix] Prof Martin, The Australian Jan 17th2008 at http://blogs.theaustralian.news.com.au/yoursay/index.php/theaustralian/comments/amen_to_death_of_embryo_research

[x] TIME, The Year in Medicine Dec 2007 at http://www.time.com/time/specials/2007/article/0,28804,1685055_1686349,00.html

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