“Noncontroversial” Embryonic Stem Cells?

An article from Bioscience Technology, a working scientist’s rag, has argued that everyone can have their lifetime supply of embryonic stem cells. Below is a summary of the article, after which I will comment on it.

Susan Fisher is the director of the UCSF Human Embryonic Stem Cell program. Last week, her lab reported that they have efficiently created embryonic stem cell lines from the cells removed from early embryos for Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) clinics. PGD takes a single cell from an early embryo that was created by means of in vitro fertilization, and subjects that single cell to genetic analyses to determine if the embryo carries a genetic disease. Because early human embryos have the ability to “regulate,” the removal of a single simply spurs the cells of the embryo to undergo extra cell divisions. The embryos subjected to PGD are then either destroyed, if they harbor a genetic disease, or implanted into the mother’s womb and gestated.

However, these cells removed from embryos could also be used to make an embryonic stem cell culture, since they could be seeded in culture to make an embryonic stem (ES) cell line. Therefore, in theory, cells could now be routinely removed from in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinic embryos, to provide them with a lifetime supply of their own embryonic stem cells. Because these cells were made without destroying embryos, they would be uncontroversial.

“Back in the mid-2000’s, when California was trying to decide whether to fund ES cell research, thousands of interested people would come out to hear us speak about topics like this,” says Fisher, interviewed after her report to the New York Stem Cell Foundation conference last week. “It is possible this particular, refined approach will generate that kind of interest now.”

ES cells have the greatest potency of any human stem cells and they can potentially form every cell type in the adult human body. Because such cells were recently harvested, they would not possess any of the mutations that ES cultures can acquire when they are grown for long periods of time in culture.

Traditionally, ES cell lines have been derived from stored, spare embryos from IVF clinics that were donated by other patients. Therefore, they are not immunologically identical to patients who potentially need them. Patients who receive non-matching tissues must take harsh immunosuppressive drugs for years to avoid rejecting the cells, and even then, over time the immune eventually wins the fight in some cases.

In recent years, scientists have turned to induced Pluripotential Stem Cells (IPSCs). IPSCs are made by genetically engineering adult cells to express four genes that de-differentiate the cells so that they are embryonic-like cells. IPSCs have been a boon to research, since scientists hace used them to make “disease in a dish” models on which to try drugs. But IPSCs are often riddled with mutations, as they come from adults. They have not yet hit the clinic as a result (although trials are upcoming).

However, Fisher, following on the heels of very preliminary work published in the journal Nature by the biotechnology company ACT, has refined the ability to create possibly uncontroversial stem cells—that are immunological matches to patients. By removing one cell from a very young human embryo, Fisher thinks that scientist might be able to produce a veritably unlimited supply of ES cells that are immunologically identical to the embyros from which they came. And as the embryos aren’t destroyed, but implanted into the mothers’ uteruses, the derivation of these tailor-made ES cells should be uncontroversial. “We will see how this is received,” Fisher says.

The process, she reported, is robust, if still not easy to pull off. This procedure, however, is labor-intensive and required a great deal of skill to pull off. In Fisher’s lab at UCSF, they derived ten human ES cell lines from four eight-cell embryos and one 12-cell embryo from a single couple.

When compared to standard ES cells, the UCSF lines were healthy and “formed derivatives of the three germ layers” like standard ES cells. Furthermore, these cells could form trophoblasts (placental cells), and Fisher’s team used them to create the first human trophoblast stem cell line. This is something that standard ES cells cannot do and this could make the UCSF cells useful in the clinic for diseases affecting the placenta.

Will patients begin turning to such cells? A few companies in the mid-2000s started offering designer ES cells like these, but that practice ended due to lack of interest or understanding, Fisher says. Additionally, some technical problems—later fully rectified—associated with the earlier Nature ACT paper may have cast a pall on enthusiasm for the approach, others in the field note.

“It remains to be seen if a place will be found for both iPS and ES cells,” Fisher concludes.

Now follows my comments:

Human embryos are very young human beings.  They do not have the right to vote, own property, or get a driver’s license, but they at least have the right not to be harmed.  By withdrawing cells from the embryo, you are potentially harming it.  “But wait,” proponents will tell you, “there are hundreds or even thousands of children who have been born who grew from embryos that were subjected to PGD and their rates of birth defects are no higher than everyone else’s.”  So their rates of birth defects are lower, but have we followed them for the rest of their lives to establish that removing a blastomere during early development does no harm?

“Oh come on,” you say.  But there are studies in mice that show that removing blastomere from early embryos does not cause higher rates of birth defects, but it does cause higher rates of neurological defects that manifest later in life.  Yu and others found that “mice generated after blastomere biopsy showed weight increase and some memory decline compared with the control group. Further protein expression profiles in adult brains were analyzed by a proteomics approach. A total of 36 proteins were identified with significant differences between the biopsied and control groups, and the alterations in expression of most of these proteins have been associated with neurodegenerative diseases. Furthermore hypomyelination of the nerve fibers was observed in the brains of mice in the biopsied group. This study suggested that the nervous system may be sensitive to blastomere biopsy procedures and indicated an increased relative risk of neurodegenerative disorders in the offspring generated following blastomere biopsy.”  In another paper, Yang and others showed that “blastomere biopsy, increases the rate of embryo death at 4.5-7.5 dpc, but does not affect the development of surviving 7.5 dpc embryos.”  In human embryos, time-lapse photography of biopsied embryos by Kirkegaard K, Hindkjaer JJ and Ingerslev HJ showed that “blastomere biopsy prolongs the biopsied cell-stage, possibly caused by a delayed compaction and alters the mechanism of hatching.”  Finally, Sugawara and others showed that “The data demonstrate that blastomere biopsy deregulates steroid metabolism during pregnancy. This may have profound effects on several aspects of fetal development, of which low birth weight is only one. If a similar phenomenon occurs in humans, it may explain low birth weights associated with PGD/ART and provide a plausible target for improving PGD outcomes.”

There is reason to believe that this procedure potentially hurts the embryo.  Also, not all blastomeres in the early embryo are equally competent to make ES lines (see Lorthongpanich et al., Reproduction. 2008 Jun;135(6):805-1).  Therefore, if more than one blastomere must be taken from the embryo, the risks to it definitely increases (see Groossens et al., Hum. Reprod. (2008) 23 (3): 481-492).  The embryo has a basic right not to be harmed, but PGD potentially harms it without its consent.  This is barbaric.  With any other procedure we would say so, but this seems to be alright because we are dealing with embryos and they are too small and young.  This is ageism and size discrimination.  These are not “uncontroversial stem cells.”  They are anything but.  


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).

6 thoughts on ““Noncontroversial” Embryonic Stem Cells?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with the statement, “. . . The Embryo (to be a child) has the basic RIGHT NOT TO BE HARMED . . .” The thinking that this is a ‘lesser’ ethical issue is ridiculous. I for one will not risk the eternal consequences on behalf of any of these ‘farmed embryos’, or for my own eternal consequences. Just because we ‘can’ DOES NOT IMPLY THAT WE SHOULD. Any place that I will be seeing Patients will not venture into this sea of an ‘ethical dilemma’.

  2. How about getting embryonic stem cells through this method, and only making them available to the embryo from which they came from? Would this not be similar to preventative surgery?

    1. I would not agree – as the potential to possibly injure the Baby in advance would possibly create a situation where they could later (stem cells) need to be used . . . wouldn’t want to do that. UCSC are a nice option, and do not put the child at risk – and can be analyzed for Genetic defects long in advance should the need arise for them.

    2. No Andres, I do not think so. Preventative surgery is always voluntary and is undertaken when the benefits outweigh the risks. In this case there is no guarantee that the isolated blastomere will give rise to an embryonic stem cell line, and a definite risk to the embryo, which the embryo is experiencing without giving his or her consent. While you could argue that the parents are providing consent for this procedure just as they would for a minor child, there are still some procedures that physicians will not do even with parental consent because the risks are simply too great. This seems to qualify as one of those procedures. Thanks for commenting.

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