Defending Planned Parenthood with Medical Language


The possibility that an organization like Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue procured from the dismembering of unborn children is deeply troubling.  However, some of the statements offered by defenders of Planned Parenthood are quite revealing.

In the New Republic, Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN makes the following statements:  “These are not ‘baby parts.’ Whether a woman has a miscarriage or an abortion, the tissue specimen is called “products of conception.”  This is pure rubbish.  Unborn babies are still babies whether you want to call them that or not.  Parts of their bodies are therefore baby parts.  I will grant that these are fetal baby parts, but they are baby parts all the same.  If they were not, then why would biotechnology companies or university research laboratories find them so valuable?  Because they are cells, tissues, and organs from unborn babies.  A very young human embryo results from conception (or the completion of fertilization), and this young embryo represents the earliest stages in the life of a human person.  “Products of conception” is a general term to describe the bodies of unborn after they die either by natural or unnatural means.    The term says nothing about how the unborn baby died, when they died, or why they died.  Likewise when an adult dies their body is called a “cadaver.”  The term says nothing about how the individual died, and neither does it reduce the humanity of the person who just died.  Therefore what we call an unborn baby’s lifeless body does not detract from the fact that this unborn baby in the fetal or embryonic stage of development is a young, unborn human person and, yes, a baby, albeit one who has yet to be born.

Dr. Gunter continues:  “The term baby is medically incorrect as it doesn’t apply until birth. Calling the tissue “baby parts” is a calculated attempt to anthropomorphize an embryo or fetus. It is a false image—a ten to twelve week fetus looks nothing like a term baby—and is medically incorrect.”  If the term “baby” is medically incorrect, then why did the documentary “Twice Born” about fetal surgery refer to this procedure as surgery on an “unborn baby.”  This is not anthropomorphizing unborn babies.  Look at the picture below of a ten-week-old baby and tell me that this unborn child does not look like a human baby.  Despite her incipient state, she is clearly a very young human baby at this stage.

10-week-fetus

There is nothing false about this image.  When we end the life of a ten-week-old baby like this one we are killing an unborn baby.  All the defining it out of existence and medicalese will not change that.

“Hearing medical professionals talk casually about products of conception may seem distasteful to some, but not to doctors. Medical procedures are gory by nature.”  She then goes on to discuss medical procedures that include surgery.  The procedures described are designed to save lives and not end them.  We find the cavalier discussion of the trafficking of baby parts distasteful because it results from the physical dismembering of the weakest and most vulnerable members of the medical community.  To place abortion alongside life-saving procedures like cutting out cancers or dealing with broken limbs is a non sequitur of the first order.

Then she claims that “FactCheck.org contacted several researchers who work with human tissue, and the price range mentioned in the videos—$30 to $100 per patient—is on the low-end. ‘There’s no way there’s a profit at that price,’ Sherilyn J. Sawyer, the director of Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Biorepository, told the website.”  Since Dr. Sawyer does not run an abortion clinic, how would she know?  I will grant that she knows about compiling with federal law when it comes to the procurement of fetal tissue, but how would she know how much it costs the clinics?  If the companies or tissue repositories are coming into the clinics and taking the tissue straight after the procedures are performed, as mentioned in the videos, what expenses are incurred besides paperwork costs?  If the tissue is shipped there are shipping costs, but those are paid by the company.  In these videos, there was no talk of covering administrative costs, which is allowed by law.  Instead there was talk of prices for fetal tissue for the clinics for the sake of profit and that is illegal (see statute above).  How would we know if the clinics are making a profit off this unless they are investigated?  Dr Gent’s entire argument is irrelevant and a dodge.

Finally, Dr. Gent equates those who are troubled by these videos with those who deny the moon landings.  This is ridiculous and is the sign of a failed, desperate argument.  She writes, “there are those who refuse to believe that the full scope of reproductive health care is grounded in medical evidence.”  Well the medical evidence shows that abortion ends the life of the youngest members of the human community who are at their weakest and most vulnerable simply because, in the vast majority of the cases, they have the misfortune of being an inconvenience.  Equating those of us with the sense to see that with people who deny the moon landing is risible.

Hopefully Congress will do what they need to do and the Justice Department will do what they should do, but in this highly politicized administration, I would not hold my breath.

Planned Parenthood and Fetal Tissue Procurement


Unless you have been without any internet access for the past month or so, you have probably heard about the undercover videos made by David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress that feature the chief medical director of Planned Parenthood, Dr. Deborah Nucatola,  discussing the sale of fetal tissue that results from an abortion, and Dr. Mary Gatter, the Medical Directors’ Council President for Planted Parenthood doing essentially the same thing.

The emotional impact of these videos are immense, but I would like to try to step back from that and discuss the legal side of these videos.  Fetal tissue procurement is heavily regulated by the Federal government.  The specific laws that regulate human fetal tissue procurement are shown below:

42 U.S. Code § 289g–2 – Prohibitions regarding human fetal tissue
a) Purchase of tissue
It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration if the transfer affects interstate commerce.
(b) Solicitation or acceptance of tissue as directed donation for use in transplantation
It shall be unlawful for any person to solicit or knowingly acquire, receive, or accept a donation of human fetal tissue for the purpose of transplantation of such tissue into another person if the donation affects interstate commerce, the tissue will be or is obtained pursuant to an induced abortion, and—
(1) the donation will be or is made pursuant to a promise to the donating individual that the donated tissue will be transplanted into a recipient specified by such individual;
(2) the donated tissue will be transplanted into a relative of the donating individual; or
(3) the person who solicits or knowingly acquires, receives, or accepts the donation has provided valuable consideration for the costs associated with such abortion.
(c) Solicitation or acceptance of tissue from fetuses gestated for research purposes
It shall be unlawful for any person or entity involved or engaged in interstate commerce to—
(1) solicit or knowingly acquire, receive, or accept a donation of human fetal tissue knowing that a human pregnancy was deliberately initiated to provide such tissue; or
(2) knowingly acquire, receive, or accept tissue or cells obtained from a human embryo or fetus that was gestated in the uterus of a nonhuman animal.
(d) Criminal penalties for violations
(1) In general
Any person who violates subsection (a), (b), or (c) shall be fined in accordance with title 18, subject to paragraph (2), or imprisoned for not more than 10 years, or both.
(2) Penalties applicable to persons receiving consideration
With respect to the imposition of a fine under paragraph (1), if the person involved violates subsection (a) or (b)(3), a fine shall be imposed in an amount not less than twice the amount of the valuable consideration received.
(e) Definitions
For purposes of this section:
(1) The term “human fetal tissue” has the meaning given such term in section 289g–1 (g) of this title.
(2) The term “interstate commerce” has the meaning given such term in section 321 (b) of title 21.
(3) The term “valuable consideration” does not include reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue.

If we wade through the legalese, we can see that you cannot sell fetal tissue.  It has to be donated and it cannot come from a pregnancy whose sole purpose was to provide a source of fetal tissue.  You may not sell it for a profit.  You may also not transplant it.  All of this is meant to prevent women from having babies so they can sell their parts for money.  For this reason, abortion clinics may not use the possibility of fetal tissue donation as an inducement to persuade women to have an abortion.

In both of these videos, Planned Parenthood executives, not people who run individual centers, medical directors, which makes this official Planned Parenthood policy, actively discuss the prices of fetal organs.  That reflects an intent to sell fetal organs and that means that these videos reflect an intent to break a Federal law.  If this reflects routine Planned Parenthood policy and/or practice, then they are routinely breaking the law.

As you can see, at the very least, this deserves an investigation.  If Planned Parenthood clinics routinely charge biotechnology companies beyond their normal administrative and medical costs for fetal tissue, then they are breaking the law.  Maybe that is not the case (I highly doubt it frankly, but that’s my take), but we do not know without an investigation.  The Justice Department should become involved quickly and all federal funding of Planned Parenthood should be suspended pending full cooperation with a Federal investigation.  This should be the minimal results of these troubling videos.

Cells Made From Embryonic Stem Cells Derived from Cloned Embryos Are Rejected by the Immune System


Researchers from Stanford University have shown that genetic differences in mitochondria found in cells made from pluripotent stem cells that were originally derived from cloned embryos can prompt rejection by the immune system of the host animal from which they were made, at least in mice.

According to a study in mice by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and colleagues in Germany, England and at MIT, cells and tissues in mice made from cloned embryos are rejected by the body because of a previously unknown immune response to the cell’s mitochondria. These findings reveal a likely hurdle if such therapies are ever used in humans.

Regenerative therapies that utilize stem cells have the potential to repair organs, replace dead or dying tissues, and treat severe diseases.  Many stem cell scientists think that pluripotent stem cells, which can differentiate into any kind of cell in the body, show the most promise for regenerative medical applications in the clinic.  One method for deriving pluripotent stem cells that have the same genetic composition as that of the patients is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) or cloning.  This method takes the nucleus of an adult cell and injects it into an egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed.

SCNT can potentially make pluripotent stem cells that can repair a patient’s body. “One attraction of SCNT has always been that the genetic identity of the new pluripotent cell would be the same as the patient’s, since the transplanted nucleus carries the patient’s DNA,” said cardiothoracic surgeon Sonja Schrepfer, MD, PhD, who was the co-senior author of the study, which was published online Nov. 20 in Cell Stem Cell.

“The hope has been that this would eliminate the problem of the patient’s immune system attacking the pluripotent cells as foreign tissue, which is a problem with most organs and tissues when they are transplanted from one patient to another,” added Schrepfer, a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Cardiovascular Institute, and Heisenberg Professor of the German Research Foundation at the University Heart Center in Hamburg, and at the German Center for Cardiovascular Research.

Several years ago, Stanford University professor of pathology and developmental biology, Irving Weissman, MD, chaired a National Academies panel on SCNT cells.  At this time, he raised the possibility that the immune system of a patient who received the cells derived from stem cells made from cloned embryos might still generate an immune response against proteins from the cells’ mitochondria.  Mitochondria are the energy factories for cells, and they have their own genetic system (a DNA chromosome, protein-making structures called ribosomes, and enzymes for expressing and replicating DNA).  This reaction could occur because cells created through SCNT contain mitochondria from the egg donor and not from the patient, and therefore could still appear as foreign tissue to the recipient’s immune system.

There were other indications that Weisman was probably correct.  An experiment that was published in 2002 by William Rideout in the laboratory of Rudolf Jaenisch at the Whitehead Institute for Biological Research in the journal Cell derived embryonic stem cells from cloned mouse embryos and then differentiated those embryonic stem cells into bone marrow-based blood making stem cells. These blood making stem cells were then used to reconstitute the bone marrow of a mouse that had a mutation that prevented their bone marrow from forming normal types of disease-fighting white blood cells. However, even though the recipient mouse was genetically identical to the embryonic stem cells that had been used to derived the blood-making stem cells, the immune systems of the recipient mouse still rejected the implanted cells after a time.  Weissman, however, was not able to directly test this claim himself at that time.  Weissman directs the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, and now, in collaboration with Schrepfer and her colleagues, he was able to test this hypothesis.

“There was a thought that because the mitochondria were on the inside of the cell, they would not be exposed to the host’s immune system,” Schrepfer said. “We found out that this was not the case.”

Schrepfer, who heads the Transplant and Stem Cell Immunobiology Laboratory in Hamburg, used cells that were created by transferring the nuclei of adult mouse cells into enucleated eggs cells from genetically different mice. When transplanted back into the nucleus donor strain, the cells were rejected although there were only two single nucleotide substitutions in the mitochondrial DNA of these SCNT-derived cells compared to that of the nucleus donor. “We were surprised to find that just two small differences in the mitochondrial DNA was enough to cause an immune reaction,” she said.

“We didn’t do the experiment in humans, but we assume the same sort of reaction could occur,” Schrepfer added.

Until recently, researchers were able to perform SCNT in many species, but not in humans.  However, scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University announced the successful derivation of human embryonic  stem cells from cloned, human embryos.  This reignited interest in eventually using SCNT for human therapies. Although many stem cell researchers are focused on a different method of creating pluripotent stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, some believe that there are some applications for which SCNT-derived pluripotent cells are better suited.

The immunological reactions reported in the new paper will be a consideration if clinicians ever use SCNT-derived stem cells in human therapy, but Weissman thinks that such reactions should not prevent their use.  “This research informs us of the margin of safety that would be required if, in the distant future, we need to use SCNT to create pluripotent cells to produce the tissue stem cells to treat someone,” he said. “In that case, clinicians would likely be able to handle the immunological reaction using the immunosuppression methods that are currently available.”  I find such a statement somewhat cavalier given that the nature of the immunological rejection might be robust enough to endanger the patient regardless of the anti-rejection drugs that are used.

In the future, scientists might also lessen the immune reaction by using eggs from someone who is genetically similar to the recipient, such as a mother or sister, Schrepfer added.  Except that now you have added the dangers of egg retrieval to this treatment regimen, which not only greatly jacks up the price of this type of treatment, but now endangers another person just to treat this one patient.  Add to that the fact that you are making a cloned human embryo (a very young person) for the sole purpose of dismembering it, and now you have added a degree of barbarism to this treatment as well.

So if we some SCNT-based treatments for patients we have an added danger for the patient (immunological rejection), danger for the egg donor, the homicide of the young embryo, and a prohibitively expensive procedure that no insurance company in their right mind would fund. I say we abandon this mode of treatment for the morally-bankrupt option that it is and pursue more ethical ways of treating patients.

Embryonic Stem Cells From Cloned Embryos Vs Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells: Let the Debate Begin


In May of 2013, Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his coworkers from the Oregon Health and Science University, reported the derivation of human embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. Other stem cell scientists have confirmed that Mitalipov’s protocol works as well as he says it does.

Mitalipov and others have also examined the genetic integrity of embryonic stem cells made from cloned human embryos and induced pluripotent stem cells made from mature adult cells through genetic engineering and cell culture techniques. This paper was published in Nature in June 2014 and used genetically matched sets of human Embryonic Stem cells made from embryos donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, induced Pluripotent Stem cells and nuclear transfer ES cells (NT-ES cells) derived by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). All three of these sets of stem cells were subjected to genome-wide analyses. These analyses sowed that both NT-ES cells and iPS cells derived from the same somatic cells contained comparable numbers of genetic variations. However, DNA methylation, a form of DNA modification for regulatory purposes and gene expression profiles of NT-ES cells corresponded closely to those of IVF ES cells. However, the gene expression provide of iPS cells differed from these other two cell types and iPS cells also retained residual DNA methylation patterns typical of the parental somatic cells. From this study, Mitalipov stated that “human somatic cells can be faithfully reprogrammed to pluripotency by SCNT (that means cloning) and are therefore ideal for cell replacement therapies.”

Now a new study by Dieter Egli of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) in New York City, which included Mitalipov as a collaborator, has failed to demonstrate significant genetic differences between iPS cells and NT-ES cells. This is significant because Eglin has long been a rather vigorous proponent of cloning to make patient-specific stem cells. Egli gave an oral preview of his forthcoming paper on October 22nd, at the NYSCF annual conference. Egli told his audience, “This means that all of you who are working on iPS cells are probably working with cells that are actually very good. So I have good news for you,” he told them, eliciting murmurs and chuckles. “What this exactly means for the SCNT program, I don’t know yet.”

Egli and colleagues used skin cells from two people—a newborn and an adult—to create both stem cells from cloned embryos (using donor eggs) and iPS cells. Then they compared the genomes of these two types of cell lines with the genomes of the original skin cells in terms of genetic mutations, changes in gene expression, and differences in DNA methylation. Both methods resulted in about 10 mutations compared with the average genome of the mature source cells. These changes didn’t necessarily happen during reprogramming, however, Egli says, since many of these mutations were likely present in the original skin cells, and some could have arisen during the handling of cells before they were reprogrammed.

Both types of stem cells also carried a similar amount of methylation changes. Overall, the method didn’t seem to matter, Egli and his team concluded. Because he is a longtime proponent of SCNT, Egli says it would have been “more attractive” to reveal significant differences between the two kinds of stem cells. “This is simply not what we found.”

Now it would be premature to conclude that iPS cells are as good as NT-ES cells for regenerative purposes, but this certainly seems to throw a monkey wrench in the cloning bandwagon. Cloning would be quite complicated and expensive and also requires young, fertile women to donate their eggs. These egg donors must undergo potentially risky procedures to donate their eggs. Jennifer Lahl’s documentary Eggsploitation provides just a few of some of the horror stories that some women experienced donating their eggs. The long-term effects of this procedure is simply not known and asking young women to do this and potentially compromise their health or future fertility seems beyond the pale to me.

Alternatively, iPS technology keeps improving and may come to the clinic sooner than we think. Also, is a cloned embryo essentially different from one made through IVF or “the old-fashioned way.?” This whole things seems to me to involved the creation of very young human beings just so that we can dismember them and use them as spare parts. Such a practice is barbaric in the extreme.

For those who are interested, please see chapters 18 and 19 of my book The Stem Cell Epistles to read more about this important topic.

Scientists Make Cloned Stem Cells from Adult Cells


For the first time, stem cell scientists have derived stem cells from cloned human embryos that were made from adult cells.  This brings them closer to developing patient-specific lines of cells that can be used to treat a whole host of human maladies, but at a cost.  This research was described in the April 17th online edition of the journal Cell Stem Cell.

In May of last year, Shoukhrat Mitalipov from the Oregon Health and Science University, reported the derivation of human embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos.  However, these cloned were made using cells that came from infants.  Miltalipov worked out a new protocol for cloning human embryos by using nonhuman primate embryos, in particular those from a Rhesus monkey.

In this study, the donor cells came from two men, a 35-year-old and a 75-year-old.  By using the protocol developed by Mitalipov and his group, Robert Lanza, Young Gie Chung, and Dong Ryul Lee and their colleagues made personalized embryonic stem cells from these two men.

Stem cell biologist Paul Knoepfler, an associate professor at the University of California at Davis who runs the widely read Stem Cell Blog, called the new research “exciting, important, and technically convincing.”  He continued: “In theory you could use those stem cells to produce almost any kind of cell and give it back to a person as a therapy.”

In their paper, Young Gie Chung from the Research Institute for Stem Cell Research for CHA Health Systems in Los Angeles, Robert Lanza from Advanced Cell Technology in Marlborough, Mass., and their co-authors pointed out the potential promise of this technology for new regenerative therapies.  However, their work is also an important discovery for human cloning, since it shows that age-associated changes are not necessarily an impediment to SCNT-based nuclear reprogramming of human cells.

Even though it was the intent of Chung and others to gestate these cloned embryos to form cloned children, this work could be the first step toward creating a baby with the same genetic makeup as a donor.  Thus, this technology presents a so-called “dual-use dilemma.”

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Center for Genetics and Society, explained that many technologies developed for good can be used in ways that the inventor may not have intended and may not like.

“This and every technical advance in cloning human tissue raises the possibility that somebody will use it to clone a human being, and that is a prospect everyone is against,” Darnovsky said.

This paper represents a collaboration between members of academic laboratories and industry.  Funding for this work came from a private medical foundation and South Korea’s Ministry of Science.

Technically, the somatic-cell nuclear transfer protocols used in paper are still somewhat inefficient.  Chung’s team had to attempt 39 times to produce only two blastocyst-stage embryos.  Their first attempts were complete failures, but when they modified the Mitalipov protocol and activated the cloned embryos 2 hours after fusion rather than 30 minutes after fusion, the embryos grew successfully.

“We have reaffirmed that it is possible to generate patient-specific stem cells using [this] technology,” Chung said.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health & Science University, who developed the method that Chung’s group built upon, said that this work involves eggs that have not been fertilized.

“There will always be opposition to embryonic research, but the potential benefits are huge,” Mitalipov said.

Yes, there will be opposition to destructive research on embryos because they are the youngest among us.  No they do not have the right to vote, drive a car, or buy a hunting license, but they have the right to not be harmed.  To deny them that right because they cannot presently exercise particular capacities assumes that the embryo undergoes essential changes as it develops.  But human embryos develop into the kinds of entities they become because of their intrinsic human nature that drives them to do so.  Yes development is a progressive program that causes the embryo to acquire new structures and capabilities that it previously did not have, but what kind of entity can develop into a human adult that is not itself human?  It takes a human embryo to make a human fetus, which makes a human new-born baby, which makes a human toddler, and do on.  This continuum or development and change occurs throughout or lives and this continuum begins at the end of fertilization.

Cloned embryos begin this continuum at the completion of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT).  SCNT works as a stand-in for fertilization, but the result is still the same – a human embryo.  It also should have the right not to be harmed, but instead she is being produced solely for the purpose of being dismembered.  Is this the way we should treat the smallest and most defenseless among us? surely not.  All this talk about, “well we did not form a fully human being” is a crock.  Yes you did.  You formed a fully formed human embryo.  We were all human embryos at one time and these embryos developed into you and me.  We were inarticulate and incapable at the time, but we gained those capacities over time.  Again, how can something that gives rise to a human child not be human?  The embryo is a human being, but it is a very young human being.  Youth should not disqualify it from being able to live.

Seventeen years ago, when Ian Wilmut from the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland announced news about the birth of the first sheep cloned from somatic cells named Dolly, several legislators called for a ban on human cloning.  Several countries took measures to limit or outlaw such work, but in the United States.  The cloning issue was obfuscated by dividing it into “reproductive cloning” for the purposes of making cloned children, and “therapeutic cloning” for the development of new therapies.  Unfortunately, this dichotomy is slightly disingenuous since the techniques for both of these procedures are exactly the same except that reproductive cloning uses a surrogate mother to gestate the cloned embryo and bring her to term.  Both of these procedures produce human embryos, but one uses them to make a baby and the other destroys them before they can do so.

President George W. Bush tried to split the difference by restricting federal funding for stem cell research that harms to a human embryo.  This led to talk of Bush’s “embryonic stem cell ban,” which was inaccurate and was used unfairly used to paint Bush as an idiot.  However, some 15 states have laws addressing human cloning, and about half of them ban both reproductive and therapeutic cloning.

Embryonic stem cell research has typically used embryos that are left over from the fertility industry.  However, some religious groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and others as well  objected to this, since it destroys a very young human being.

However, about seven years ago, Shinya Yamanaka and his colleagues discovered a way to make induced pluripotent stem cells from mature adult cells.  Genetic engineering techniques could convert ordinary cells into pluripotent stem cells without the need for human eggs.  While this technique did not present the same ethical issues, some induced pluripotent stem cells lines contain significant genetic abnormalities and there is still debate over how safe these cells are for clinical use.

The research conducted by Mitalipov and Chung provides a second way of producing pluripotent cells through laboratory techniques that is, in my view, far less ethical and will almost certainly also have unintended consequences as well.

I’m on Life Report Podcast


Josh Brahm runs the Life Report podcast and is one of the nicest guys on the planet. Josh invited me to his podcast at the end of last year to talk about my book and stem cell research in general.  The editing of that exchange has become available.

The interview is here, and the bonus discussion is here. Josh is a very good interviewer.  I think you’ll enjoy it.

Human STAP cells – Troubling Possibilities


Soon after the publication of this paper that adult mouse cells could be reprogrammed into embryonic-like stem cells simply by exposing them to acidic environments or other stresses , Charles Vacanti at Harvard Medical School has reported that he and his colleagues have demonstrated that this procedure works with human cells.

STAP cells or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells were derived by Vacanti and his Japanese collaborators last year. These new findings show that adult cells can be reprogrammed into embryonic-like stem cells without genetic engineering. However, this technique worked well in mouse cells, but it was not clear that it would work with human adult cells.

Vacanti and others shocked the world when they published their paper in the journal Nature earlier this year when they announced that adult cells in mice could be reprogrammed through exposure to stresses and proper culture conditions.

Now Vacanti has made good on his promise to test his protocol on human adult cells. In the photo below, provided by Vacanti, human adult cells were reprogrammed to a pluripotent state by exposing them to stresses, followed by growth in culture under specific conditions.

Human STAP cells
Human STAP cells

“If they can do this in human cells, it changes everything, said Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technologies in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Such a procedure promises cheaper, faster, and potentially more flexible cells for regenerative medicine, cancer therapy and cell and tissue cloning.

Vacanti and his colleagues say they have taken human fibroblast cells and tested several environmental stressors on them to recreate human STAP cells. He will not presently disclose which particular stressors were applied, he says the resulting cells appear similar in form to the mouse STAP cells. His team is in the process of testing to see just how stem-cell-like these cells are.

According to Vacanti, the human cells took about a week to resemble STAP cells, and formed spherical clusters just like their mouse counterparts. Vacanti and his Harvard colleague Koji Kojima emphasized that these results are only preliminary and further analysis and validation is required.

Bioethical problems potentially emerge with STAP cells despite their obvious potential. The mouse cells that were derived and characterized by Vacanti’s group and his collaborators were capable of making placenta as well as adult cell types. This is different from embryonic stem cells, which can potentially form all adult cell types, but typically do not form placenta. Embryonic stem cells, therefore, are pluripotent, which means that they can form all adult cell types. However, the mouse STAP cells can form all embryonic and adult cell types and are, therefore, totipotent. Mouse STAP cells could form an entirely new mouse. While it is now clear if human STAP cells, if they in fact exist, have this capability, but if they do, they could potentially lead to human cloning.

Sally Cowley, who heads the James Martin Stem Cell Facility at the University of Oxford, said of Vacanti’s present experiments: “Even if these are STAP cells they may not necessarily have the same potential as mouse ones – they may not have the totipotency – which is one of the most interesting features of the mouse cells.”

However the only cells known to be naturally totipotent are in embryos that have only undergone the first couple of cell divisions immediately after fertilization. According to Cowley, any research that utilizes totipotent cells would have to be under very strict regulatory surveillance. “It would actually be ideal if the human cells could be pluripotent and not totipotent – it would make everyone’s life a lot easier,” she opined.

Cowley continued: “However, the whole idea that adult cells are so plastic is incredibly fascinating,” she says. “Using stem cells has been technically incredibly challenging up to now and if this is feasible in human cells it would make working with them cheaper, faster and technically a lot more feasible.”

This is all true, but Robert Lanza from Advanced Cell Technology in Marlborough, Massachusetts, a scientist with whom I have often deeply disagreed, noted: “The word totipotent brings up all kinds of issues,” says Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Marlborough, Massachusetts. “If these cells are truly totipotent, and they are reproducible in humans then they can implant in a uterus and have the potential to be turned into a human being. At that point you’re entering into a right-to-life quagmire”

A quagmire indeed, for Vacanti has already talked about using these STAP cells to clone human embryos. Think of it: the creation of very young human beings just for the purpose of ripping them apart and using their cells for research or medicine. Would we allow this if the embryo were older; say the age of a toddler? No we would rightly condemn it as murder, but because the embryo is very young, that somehow counts against it. This is little more than morally grading the embryo according to astrology.

Therefore, whole Vacanti’s experiments are exciting and novel, they hold chilling possibilities. Lanza is right, and it is doubtful that scientists would show the same deference or sensitivities to the moral exigencies he has shown.

Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency Cells: Embryonic-Like Stem Cells Without Killing Embryos or Genetic Engineering


Embryonic stem cells have been the gold standard for pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent means capable of differentiating into one of many cell types in the adult body. Ever since James Thomson isolated the first human embryonic stem cell lines in 1998, scientists have dreamed of using embryonic stem cells to treat diseases in human patients.

However, deriving human embryonic stem cell lines requires the destruction or molestation of a human embryo, the smallest, youngest, and most vulnerable member of our community. In 2006, Shinya Yamanaka and his colleges used genetic engineering techniques to make induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are very similar to embryonic stem cells in many ways. Unfortunately, the derivation of iPSCs introduces mutations into the cells.

Now, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), in Boston, in collaboration with the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, have demonstrated that any mature adult cell has the potential to be converted into the equivalent of an embryonic stem cell. Published in the January 30, 2014 issue of the journal Nature, this research team demonstrated in a preclinical model, a novel and unique way to reprogram cells. They called this phenomenon stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). Importantly, this process does not require the introduction of new outside DNA, which is required for the reprogramming process that produces iPSCs.

“It may not be necessary to create an embryo to acquire embryonic stem cells. Our research findings demonstrate that creation of an autologous pluripotent stem cell – a stem cell from an individual that has the potential to be used for a therapeutic purpose – without an embryo, is possible. The fate of adult cells can be drastically converted by exposing mature cells to an external stress or injury. This finding has the potential to reduce the need to utilize both embryonic stem cells and DNA-manipulated iPS cells,” said senior author Charles Vacanti, MD, chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine and Director of the Laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at BWH and senior author of the study. “This study would not have been possible without the significant international collaboration between BWH and the RIKEN Center,” he added.

The inspiration for this research was an observation in plant cells – the ability of a plant callus, which is made by an injured plant, to grow into a new plant. These relatively dated observations led Vacanti and his collaborators to suggest that any mature adult cell, once differentiated into a specific cell type, could be reprogrammed and de-differentiated through a natural process that does not require inserting genetic material into the cells.

“Could simple injury cause mature, adult cells to turn into stem cells that could in turn develop into any cell type?” hypothesized the Vacanti brothers.

Vacanti and others used cultured, mature adult cells. After stressing the cells almost to the point of death by exposing them to various stressful environments including trauma, a low oxygen and acidic environments, researchers discovered that within a period of only a few days, the cells survived and recovered from the stressful stimulus by naturally reverting into a state that is equivalent to an embryonic stem cell. With the proper culture conditions, those embryonic-like stem cells were propagated and when exposed to external stimuli, they were then able to redifferentiate and mature into any type of cell and grow into any type of tissue.

To examine the growth potential of these STAP cells, Vacanti and his team used mature blood cells from mice that had been genetically engineered to glow green under a specific wavelength of light. They stressed these cells from the blood by exposing them to acid, and found that in the days following the stress, these cells reverted back to an embryonic stem cell-like state. These stem cells then began growing in spherical clusters (like plant callus tissue). The cell clusters were introduced into developing mouse embryos that came from mice that did not glow green. These embryos now contained a mixture of cells (a “chimera”). The implanted clusters were able to differentiate into green-glowing tissues that were distributed in all organs tested, confirming that the implanted cells are pluripotent.

Thus, external stress might activate unknown cellular functions that set mature adult cells free from their current commitment to a particular cell fate and permit them to revert to their naïve cell state.

“Our findings suggest that somehow, through part of a natural repair process, mature cells turn off some of the epigenetic controls that inhibit expression of certain nuclear genes that result in differentiation,” said Vacanti.

Of course, the next step is to explore this process in more sophisticated mammals, and, ultimately in humans.

“If we can work out the mechanisms by which differentiation states are maintained and lost, it could open up a wide range of possibilities for new research and applications using living cells. But for me the most interesting questions will be the ones that let us gain a deeper understanding of the basic principles at work in these phenomena,” said first author Haruko Obokata, PhD.

If human cells can be made into embryonic stem cells by a similar process, then someday, a simple skin biopsy or blood sample might provide the material to generate embryonic stem cells that are specific to each individual, without the need for genetic engineering or killing the smallest among us. This truly creates endless possibilities for therapeutic options.

Preventing Rejection of Embryonic Stem Cell-Based Tissues


Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from human embryos. Because they are pluripotent, or have the capacity to make any adult cell type, ESCs are thought to hold great promise for cell therapy as a source of differentiated cell types.

One main drawback to the use of ESCs in regenerative medicine is the rejection of ESC-derived cells by the immune system of the patient. Transplantation of ESC-derived tissues would require the patient to take powerful anti-rejection drugs, which tend to have a boatload of severe side effects.

However, a paper reports a strategy to circumvent rejection of ESC-derived cells. If these strategies prove workable, then they might clear the way to the use of ESCs in regenerative medicine.

The first paper comes from the journal Cell Stem Cell, by Zhili Rong, and others (Volume 14, Issue 1, 121-130, 2 January 2014). In this paper, Rong and his colleagues from the laboratory of Yang Xu at UC San Diego and their Chinese collaborators used mice whose immune systems had been reconstituted with a functional human immune system. These humanized mice mount a robust immune response against ESCs and any cells derived from ESCs.

In their next few experiments, Xu and others genetically engineered human ESCs to routinely express two proteins called CTLA4-Ig and PD-L1. Now this gets a little complicated, but stay with me. The protein known as CTLA4-Ig monkeys with particular cells of the immune system called T cells, and prevents those T cells from mounting an immune response against the cells that display this protein on their surfaces. The second protein, PD-L1, also targets T cells and when T cells bind to cells that have this protein on their surfaces, they are completely prevented from acting.

CTLA-4 mechanism

Think of it this way: T cells are the “detectives” of the immune system. When they find something fishy in the body (immunologically speaking), they get on their “cell phones” and call in the cavalry. However, when these detectives come upon these cells, their cell phones are inactivated, and their memories are wiped. The detectives wander away and then do not remember that they ever came across these cells.

Further experiments showed that any derivatives of these engineered ESCs, (teratomas, fibroblasts, and heart muscle cells) were completely tolerated by the immune system of these humanized mice.

This is a remarkable paper. However, I have a few questions. Genetic engineering of these cells might be potentially dangerous, depending upon how it was done, where in the genome the introduced genes insert, and how they are expressed. Secondly, if cells experience any mutations during the expansion of these cells, these mutations might cause the cells to be detected by the immune system. Third, do these types of immune repression last long-term? Clearly more work will need to be done, but these questions are potentially addressable.

My final concern is that if this procedure is used widespread, it might lead to the wholesale destruction of human embryos. Human embryos, however, are the youngest, weakest, and most vulnerable among us. What does that say about us if we do not value the weakest among us and dismember them for their cells? Would we allow this with toddlers?

Thus my interest and admiration for this paper is tempered by my concerns for human embryos.

Radio Interview About my New Book


I was interviewed by the campus radio station (89.3 The Message) about my recently published book, The Stem Cell Epistles,

Stem Cell Epistles

It has been archived here. Enjoy.

“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.  

MSNBC Host Says That Life Begins Whenever You Feel Like It Does


I lived in Great Britain for three years for my first postdoctoral research fellowship at Sussex University. To be completely honest, I never got into the whole royal family thing, but the birth of George Alexander to Prince William and Kate Middleton is certainly an event to celebrate. George has little chance of ever ascending to the throne, but he is certainly a bundle of joy to his parents and to the British people.

Therefore, I find it rebarbative that media kill joys have used the joyous birth of William and Kate’s baby to be an opportunity to talk about abortion. In addition to this, one particular pro-choice news correspondent, Melissa Harris-Perry decided to wax philosophically about the nature of the unborn.

After noting the worldwide excitement that has surrounded Kate Middleton’s pregnancy and birth, MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry compared the buzz surrounding the British royal birth to Texas abortion politics, and then offered her own answer to the question “when does life begin:”

“When does life begin? I submit the answer depends an awful lot on the feeling of the parents. A powerful feeling – but not science,”

News correspondents say stupid things, but this has to rank as one of the most brain-dead things I have ever heard. Let’s not forget who said it, since Melissa Harris-Perry, is the news anchor who wore tampon earrings and received Planned Parenthood’s Maggie Award.

Once the egg in the fallopian tube of the mother fuses with a sperm cell from the father, the egg undergoes a complex sequences of biochemical and cellular events that culminate in the fusion of the genetic material of the mother with that of the father. This marks the end of the process known as fertilization and the beginning of the embryonic stages of development. The embryo has begun the journey of human development, growth, and maturation that will not stop until the individual dies. The embryo is genetically distinct from the mother and the father, and is a human being, albeit, a very young human being. The embryo is not a plant, an alligator, or some facsimile or something else, it is human, but a young human. That is not a feeling, but a scientific fact.

Can we kill the embryo just because it is very young? Reflection leads me to say no, no, a thousand times no. Do we value two-year old children more than one-year old children? Do we value six-year old children more than four-year old children? Age is irrelevant to the moral worth of an individual.

But, you say, the embryo is underdeveloped relative to a new-born baby. Does the extent of development determine moral worth? Again, a one-month old baby is more developed than a two-week old baby. Does that make the one-year old baby more valuable? No. Are teenagers who are more physically developed more morally valuable than eight-year old children? No. Therefore, the extent of development is not a good measure of a human being’s moral worth.

Ms. Harris-Perry seems to thing that feelings or perhaps she means how deeply a mother wants her baby is the factor that determines if he or she should continue to live. Again I say no. This would justify genocide. The dictators of North Korea can simply say that killing their own people is due to the fact that they did not want them anymore. They had those kind of feelings you know. How about Hitler and the Third Reich and their slaughter of six million Jews and many millions of  others? Hitler and his officers killed them because they did not feel that Jews and others were worthy of life. In fact, Harris-Perry’s ethic can justify any heinous, insidious acts simply on the basis of feelings.

This is, as I have said, brain-dead and she should be called out for it. The unborn human beings are still human beings regardless of how we feel about them. That is a fact of genetics and embryology regardless of your feelings about it. If MSNBC has news correspondents that say things that are this stupid, then maybe they deserve to have such low ratings.

Developmental Regression: Making Placental Cells from Embryonic Stem Cells


A research group from Copenhagen, Denmark has discovered a way to make placental cells from embryonic stem cells. In order to do this, the embryonic stem cells must be developmentally regressed so that they can become wither placenta-making cells rather than inner cell mass cells.

This study is significant for two reasons. First of all, it was thought to be impossible to make placental cells from embryonic stem cells because embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are derived from the inner cell mass cells of 4-5-day old human blastocysts. These early embryos begin as single-celled embryos that divide to form 12-16-cell embryos that undergo compaction. At this time, the cells on the outside become trophoblast cells, which will form the trophectoderm and form the placenta and the cells on the inside will form the inner cell mass, which will form the embryo proper and a few extraembryonic structures. Since ESCs are derived from inner cell mass cells that have been isolated and successfully cultured, they have already committed to a cell fate that is not placental. Therefore, to differentiate ESCs into placental cells would require that ESCs developmentally regress, which is very difficult to do in culture.

Secondly, if this could be achieved, several placental abnormalities could be more easily investigated, For example, pre-eclampsia is a very serious prenatal condition that is potentially fatal to the mother, and is linked to abnormalities of the placenta. Studying a condition such as pre-eclampsia in a culture system would definitely be a boon to gynecological research.

Because human ESCs can express genes that are characteristic of trophoblast cells if they are treated with a growth factor called Bone Morphogen Protein 4 (BMP4), it seems possible to make placental cells from them (see Xu R.H., Chen X., Li D.S., Li R., Addicks G.C., Glennon C., Zwaka T.P., Thomson J.A. BMP4 initiates human embryonic stem cell differentiation to trophoblast. Nat. Biotechnol. 2002;20:1261–1264, and Xu RH. Methods Mol Med. 2006;121:189-202). However, a study by Andreia S. Bernardo and others from the laboratory of Roger Pedersen at the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute strongly suggested that BMP4 treatment, even in the absence of FGF signaling (another growth factor that has to be absent for BMP4 to induce trophoblast-like gene expression from ESCs) the particular genes induced by BMP4 are not exclusive to trophoblast cells and more closely resemble mesodermal gene profiles (see AS Bernardo, et al., Cell Stem Cell. 2011 Aug 5;9(2):144-55).

Into the fray of this debate comes a paper by stem cells scientists at the Danish Stem Cell Center at the University of Copenhagen that shows that it is possible to rewind the developmental state of ESCs.

In this paper, Josh Brickman and his team discovered that if they maintained mouse ESCs under specific conditions, they could cause the cells to regress into very early pre-blastocyst embryonic cells that can form trophoblast cells or ICM cells.

“It was a very exciting moment when we tested the theory, said Brinkman. “We found that not only can we make adult cells but also placenta, in fact we got precursors of placenta, yolk sac as well as embryo from just one cell.”

“This new discovery is crucial for the basic understanding of the nature of embryonic stem cells and could provide a way to model the development of the organism as a whole, rather than just the embryonic portion,” said Sophie Morgani, graduate student and first author of this paper. “In this way we may gain greater insight into conditions where extraembryonic development is impaired, as in the case of miscarriages.”

To de-differentiate the ESCs, Brinkman and his colleagues grew them in a solution called “2i.”  This 2i culture medium contained inhibitors of MEK and GSK3.  MEK is a protein kinase that is a central participant in the “MAP kinase signaling pathway, which is a signaling pathway that is central to cell growth and survival.  This particular signaling pathway is the target of the anthrax toxin, which illustrates its importance,  GSK3 stands for “glycogen synthase kinase 3,” which is a signaling protein in the Wnt pathway.

When the mouse ESCs were grown in 2i medium they expressed genes normally found only in pre-blastocyst embryos (Hex, for example).  Therefore, the 2i medium directs mouse ESCs to de-differentiate.  When ESCs grown in 2i were implanted into mouse embryos, they divided and differentiated into cells that were found in placental and embryonic fates.  This strongly argues that the ESCs grown in 2i became pre-blastocyst embryonic cells.  When the ESCs grown in 2i were also grown with LIF, which stands for “leukemia inhibitory factor” (LIF is a protein required for the maintenance of mouse ESCs in culture), the 2i cells were maintained in culture and grew while maintaining their pre-blastocyst status.  These cells differentiated into placental cells, embryonic or fetal cells.  Essentially, the 2i-cultured cells when from being pluripotent to being “totipotent,” or able to form ALL cell types in the embryo, fetus, or the adult.

ESC de-differentiation in totipotence

“In our study we have been able to see the full picture unifying LIF’s functions: what LIF really does, is to support the very early embryo state, where the cells can make both embryonic cells and placenta. This fits with LIFs’ role in supporting implantation,” said Brinkman.

This study definitively shows that ESCs are NOT embryos.  ESCs can regress in their development but embryos develop forward, becoming more committed as they develop and more restricted in the cell fates they can form.  This should effectively put the nail in the coffin of Lee Silver’s argument against Robert P. George that embryonic stem cells are embryos.  They are definitely and unequivocally, since embryos do NOT develop in reverse, but ESCs can and do.

Robert P. George argues that early human embryos, like the kind used to make ESCs are very young  members of the human race and deserve, at the minimum, the right not to be harmed.  Silver counters that George’s argument is inconsistent because George would not extend the same right to an ESC cell line, which is the same as an embryo.  His reasoning is that mouse ESCs can be transplanted into other mouse embryos that have four copies of each chromosome.  The messed up mouse embryo will make the placenta and the ESCs will make the inner cell mass and the mouse will develop and even come to term.  This is called tetraploid rescue, and Silver thinks that this procedure is a minor manipulation, but that it shows that ESCs are functionally the same as embryos.

I find Silver’s argument wanting on just about all fronts.  This is not a minor manipulation.  The tetraploid embryo is bound for certain death, but the implanted ESCs use the developmental context of the tetraploid embryo to find their place in it and make the inner cell mass.  The ESCs do not do it all on their own, but instead work with the tetraploid embryo in a complex developmental give-and-take to make an embryo with the placenta from one animal and the embryo proper from another.

Thus Silver’s first argument does not demonstrate what he says it does.  All it demonstrates is that ESCs can contribute to an embryo, which is something we already knew and expected.  This new data completes blows Silver’s assertion out of the water, since ESCs can take developmental steps backward and embryos by their very nature and programming, do not.  Thus these two entities are distinct entities and are not identical.  The early embryo is a very young human person, full stop.  We should stop dismembering them in laboratories just to stem our scientific curiosity.

The Archbishop of Denver Speaks Out: Cloning Kills the Smallest Among Us and the Next Victims WIll be Us


Samuel Aquila is archbishop of the Archdiocese of Denver, Colorado and has weighed in with regards to the cloning of human embryos. I am not a Roman Catholic, and Fr. Aquila is not a person whose religious authority I am obligated to accept de fide. Nevertheless, his stance on this subject is reasoned and was published on the National Review Online website here. It is well worth reading.

Implantation of Irradiated Embryonic Stem Cells into the Heart Improves Heart Function After a Heart Attack


Adult stem cell transplantation has been used to treat heart attack patients in several different clinical trials. While the results have not been consistent, adult stem cells, it is clear that adult stem cells, primarily from bone marrow, and in some cases fat, help improve heart function. However, a major criticism of the use of adult stem cells is that they do not differentiate into heart muscle cells, but only improve the heart through “paracrine mechanisms,” which means that they secrete molecules that help heal the heart. This criticism is only represent part of the picture, since bone marrow stem cells transdifferentiate into heart muscle and blood vessel cells, albeit at a rather low rate, and fuse with endogenous cells to form hybrid cells that show improved function (Strauer BE, Steinhoff G. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2011 Sep 6;58(11):1095-104. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2011.06.016). In addition, adult stem cells activate endogenous cardiac stem cells to divide and replace lost heart muscle cells and make new blood vessels (Loffredo FS, et al., Cell Stem Cell. 2011 Apr 8;8(4):389-98. doi: 10.1016/j.stem.2011.02.002).

Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are thought to differentiate into heart muscle cells that integrate into the heart and directly replace the dead heart muscle cells, Animal studies do show such improvements (Caspi O, et al., J Am Coll Cardiol. 2007 50(19):1884-93). However, there is a caveat to all this: Most of the animal experiments with heart muscles derived from embryonic stem cells have only analyzed heart function for up to four weeks after transplantation. Experiments that examined heart function for longer than four weeks have not been able to show that these improvements are sustained after four weeks (van Laake LW, et al., Stem Cell Res. 2007 Oct;1(1):9-24. doi: 10.1016/j.scr.2007.06.001). Therefore, could it be possible that embryonic stem cell-derived cells also help the heart mainly through paracrine mechanisms?

A new paper from Piero Anversa’s and Richard Burt’s laboratories has shown that implantation of embryonic stem that were hit with radiation so that they cannot divide significantly improves heart function after a heart attack.

Experiments were conducted with mice and rhesus monkeys, and mouse and human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) were used. The ESCs were treated with 20 to 100 Grays of radiation, which completely abolished their ability to divide (a gray is the absorption of one joule of energy, in the form of ionizing radiation, per kilogram of matter).

The irradiated ESCs or iESCs were implanted into mice and Rhesus monkeys that had suffered a heart attack. Control animals were implanted with conditioned culture media from the ESC culture dishes.

In the mice and the Rhesus monkeys, the control animals showed little improvement and their hearts continued to deteriorate after the heart attack. However, the animals that had been implanted with the iESCs showed significant improvement of their heart function.

The authors in the discussion suggest that the iESCs might have suppressed the inflammatory response that occurs in the heart after a heart attack, but tissue sections of the hearts after the experiment showed that the iESC-implanted hearts had just as many immune cells infiltrating the tissue as the hearts of the control animals. Mesenchymal stem cells, however, do a very fine job of suppressing inflammation in the heart after a heart attack (see the recent paper by van den Akker et al., Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 1830 (2013): 2449-58). Therefore, the mechanisms by which ESCs improve heart function might be more paracrine-based than anything else. If this is the case, then why are embryonic stem cells being pursued for clinical purposes? Adult stem cells heal by means of paracrine mechanisms and can also sidestep the problem of immune rejection. Also, adult stem cells treatments do not require the dismemberment of young human beings at the embryo stage of their existence. Therefore, even though the present ESC lines are certainly appropriate for clinical and biological research, deriving more of them for clinical treatments is inappropriate, and even murderous.

Violence Against Women and Sex Selection Abortion


Wesley Smith at NRO has an interesting article about the vicious gang-rape in India and the possibility that sex-selection abortion might have played a role in it. Sex selection abortions have been the norm in China and India for a few decades. Because of the social pressure to make sons, daughters are often killed before they are born. This in and of itself constitutes are crime against women in the first place, but it has other ramifications and consequences. In societies where men greatly outnumber women, unmarried men commit the majority of the crimes.

From Smith’s post: “Growing evidence suggests that in countries like India and China, where the ratio of men to women is unnaturally high due to the selective abortion of female fetuses and neglect of girl children, the rates of violence towards women increase. “The sex ratio imbalance directly leads to more sex trafficking and bride buying,” says Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. A scarce resource is generally considered precious, but the lack of women also leaves many young men without marriage partners. In 2011, the number of cases of women raped rose by 9.2 percent; kidnapping and abductions of women were up 19.4 percent..” This is a quote from a Time essay by Erika Christakis.

This will hopefully wake us up to unintended consequences of snuffing out human lives before they are born.

John Gurdon Embraces Human Cloning


Wesley Smith has reported that Nobel Laureate John Gurdon, who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine this year with Japanese induced pluripotent stem cell discoverer Shinya Yamanaka, has come out in favor of human cloning.

From the story in the Daily Mail:
‘I take the view that anything you can do to relieve suffering or improve human health will usually be widely accepted by the public – that is to say if cloning actually turned out to be solving some problems and was useful to people, I think it would be accepted,’ he said. During his public lectures – which include speeches at Oxford and Cambridge Universities – he often asks his audience if they would be in favour of allowing parents of deceased children, who are no longer fertile, to create another using the mother’s eggs and skin cells from the first child, assuming the technique was safe and effective.

‘The average vote on that is 60 per cent in favour,’ he said. ‘The reasons for “no” are usually that the new child would feel they were some sort of a replacement for something and not valid in their own right. ‘But if the mother and father, if relevant, want to follow that route, why should you or I stop them?’

 

Smith then quotes from his magnificent book “Consumers Guide to a Brave New World,” which all my readers to RUN out to buy and read over and over again:

Scientists would have to clone thousands of embryos and grow them to the blastocyst stage [one week] to ensure that part of the process leading up to transfer into a uterus could be “safe,” monitoring and analyzing each embryo, destroying each one in the process. Next, cloned embryos would have to be transferred into the uteruses of women volunteers [or implanted in an artificial womb]. The initial purpose would be analysis of development, not bringing the pregnancy to a live birth. Each of these clonal pregnancies would be terminated at various points of development, each fetus destroyed for scientific analysis. The surrogate mothers would also have to be closely monitored and tested, not only during the pregnancies but also for a substantial length of time after the abortions.

Finally, if these experiments demonstrated that it was probably safe to proceed, a few clonal pregnancies would be allowed to go to full term. Yet even then, the born cloned babies would have to be constantly monitored to determine whether any health problems develop. Each would have to be followed (and undergo a battery of tests both physical and psychological) for their entire lives, since there is no way to predict if problems [associated with gene expression] might arise later in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or even into the senior years.

 

Smith, in my view, is spot on. Therapeutic cloning will not stop at using cloned blastocysts to make patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines. The reason for this is that even though cells made from differentiated embryonic stem cells can have therapeutic value, such cells can also be rejected by the immune system of the host animal. A much more fail-safe way to do this experiment is to gestate the embryos to the fetal stage and use the fetal tissues.

Once we go down the road of cloning and destroying embryos just to make embryonic stem cell lines from them, what’s to keep us from aborting fetuses just to get their cells? This slippery slope is real and speaks volumes, none of it good, about a society that sacrifices its youngest and more vulnerable members to serve the needs of others. It cheapens human life to the nth degree and at its lowest point, it simple murder.

Gurdon, however, speaks of reproductive cloning to replace children lost through tragedy. While I can appreciate the sentiment, sentiment is an extremely poor reason basis for ethics. Folks, biology is not destiny. Cloning experiments in animals have shown us that even cloned embryos made from material taken from the same mother, that are genetically identical are neither identical to their mothers nor are they identical to each other. Random events that occur during development and the way each individual responds to their environment shapes them in a unique manner. The cloned sheep Dolly was completely unlike her cloned siblings in personality, behavior, or overall appearance. The same can be said for CC (for “Carbon Copy”), the first cloned cat, which looked unlike her mother and had a very different personality.

Yet these cloned children are asked from the second they are born to replace another child who is unlike them. The cloned child is a human person and while the right for each person to be authentically who there are in an inherent right of all human beings, this very right is denied these cloned kids – they are born for the very reason that they can be someone else. This is a violation of everything it means to be human, and it is the very reason no good thing can come from human cloning.

Gurdon is a brilliant scientist, but as we have seen before, great scientists sometimes make terrible ethicists.

Child With Missing Cerebellum Is Learning How to Walk


The inimitable Wesley Smith has blogged about a remarkable child who was born without several portions of his brain. This little boy, Chase Britton, was born prematurely. He had a MRI scan at the age of one, and this scan showed that Chase was completely missing his cerebellum, and his pons. The cerebellum is a small lobe at the back of the brain that underlies the occipital and temporal lobes of the cerebral cortex. The cerebellum accounts for approximately 10% of the brain’s volume, but it contains over 50% of the total number of neurons in the brain. The cerebellum has several functions: 1) Maintenance of balance and posture; 2) Coordination of voluntary movements; 3) Motor learning; and 4) Cognitive functions.

Those small postural adjustments that help us maintain balance are all mediated by the cerebellum. It does this by means of input from receptors in the inner ear (vestibular receptors) and in the joints that tell your brain about the orientation of your body. Consequently, patients with damage to the cerebellum suffer from balance problems.  Most movements result from different muscle groups acting together in a temporally coordinated fashion, and the cerebellum coordinates the timing and force of these different muscle groups to produce fluid limb or body movements. The cerebellum also plays a major role in adapting and fine-tuning motor movements in order to make accurate movements through a trial-and-error process. For example learning to hit a baseball, shooting a basketball, slapping a hockey puck or other types of fine motor processes. Finally, the cerebellum is involved in certain cognitive functions, especially those that require motor skills, for example, language acquisition.

The pons is a portion of the brain that lies just in front of the cerebellum. The pons contains many “vital centers.” Vital centers are clusters of neurons that control vital bodily functions such as breathing, heart beat, and other such functions.

Chase has forced neurologists to rethink how the brain works or how the brain rewires itself in response to damage or developmental abnormalities. From the story:

But instead of being unable to carry out tasks like sitting up or crawling, Chase has forced experts to rethink how the brain functions. His mother Heather Britton told AOL News: ‘We call him the Little Gremlin. He loves to play tricks on people. His goal in life is to make people smile. ‘No one had ever seen it before. And then we’d go to the neurologists and they’d say, “that’s impossible, he has the MRI of a vegetable”.’ Dr Adre du Plessis, chief of Foetal and Transitional Medicine at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C., told WGRZ: ‘There are some very bright, specialised people across the country and in Europe that have put their minds to this dilemma and are continuing to do so, and we haven’t come up with an answer.

This boy is disabled, but he is not a vegetable. If you do not believe me, see this video of him learning to walk here. However, in places like Holland, Chase would have been exterminated under the Groningen Protocol. According to the Groningen Protocol, Dutch doctors can euthanize infants with terminal and seriously disabling conditions. In Belgium too, disabled babies are murdered, and in most countries, Chase would have been done in. Even though his is not, Chase would have been classified as an “anencephalic” baby. Anencephalic babies are born without the tops of their heads and are missing their cerebral cortex. They have a brain stem and their hearts are still beating but there is no indication that they can feel pain, beyond simple reflexes. The majority of anencephalic babies are born dead (stillborn), and about one third of them live a few hours to a few days. In very rare cases, they will live a few weeks up to a few months. Anencephalic babies are also born blind, deaf, unconscious, and unable to feel pain. They still react with spinal or brainstem reactions to stimuli. They are typically given comfort care until death so that a peaceful environment for the parents, with support from chaplains, counselors, and hospital staff.

Anencephalic babies are considered a good source of organs for neonatal transplantation. The current Uniform Declaration of Death Act (UDDA) requires brain death and irreversible cessation of heart/lung function prior to organ donation. This prevents organ donation from living donors who might have some reversibility in their brain function. Unfortunately, many organs from anencephalic babies may not be usable as a result of damage from a lack of oxygen. With the shortage of fetal or neonatal organs for transplant, some have argued that anencephaly should be the exception to the UDDA requirements. However, the general consensus is that it is unethical to harvest organs from an anencephalic babies until they are “dead.”

Now, according to Smith, programs to procure organs from anencephalic babies often receive organs from babies that are not anencephalic, but from children who are disabled. Listen to these words from Smith’s excellent book, The Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America:

In 1988, Loma Linda University in California created an organ procurement protocol to use anencephalic babies as organ donors in which physicians from around the country were asked to transfer, with parental permission, qualified infants to the Loma Linda University Medical Center where the procurement would take place. The program only lasted eight months before it had to be suspended, in part because of the inability of Loma Linda doctors to procure usable organs in thirteen attempts. However, the primary reason for shutting down the initiative was that physicians referred non-anencephalic, disabled babies to Loma Linda for organ procurement.

Dr. Shewmon, USC bioethicist and law professor Alexander M. Capron and others, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association described what happened:

[T]he experience at transplantation referral centers indicates that enthusiasm for using anencephalics does indeed quickly extend to other categories of dying infants. As a result of the national interest in Loma Linda’s protocol, for example, that institution received from ‘good’ physicians several referrals of infants with less severe anomalies for organ donation, such as ‘babies born with an abnormal amount of fluid around the brain or those born without kidneys but with a normal brain.’ Moreover, the referring physicians ‘couldn’t understand the difference’ between such newborns and anencephalics.” Joyce Peabody, MD, chief of neonatology there and primary drafter of the protocol, deserves much credit for her courageously candid statement: ‘I have become educated by the experience. … The slippery slope is real’ (D. Alan Shewmon, et al, “The Use of Anencephalic Infants as Organ Sources: A Critique,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 261, p. 1775).

Calling Chase Britton a vegetable is the height of absurdity and cruelty. He is a human being; a disabled one, but a human person. Thank God that his parents did not condemn him to death because of his disability. His perseverance is a testimony to his human spirit.

Our Dangerous Obsession With Health


Wesley Smith has written a fine column at the First Things “On the Square” site. He draws from another terrific article by Yuval Levine at the New Atlantis. Both of these articles tackle a similar issue and is our society’s unhealthy preoccupation with avoiding any kind of suffering and supply our every whim whether it is good for us or not. We used to be a society that was concerned with cultivating virtue or even justice and equality. Today, if is about our desires and the avoidance of discomfort or suffering of any type.

There is nothing wrong with promoting health, but when health becomes the primary purpose of society, it becomes an excuse for immediate gratification and hedonism. In the words of Levin: “Unbalanced and unmoored from other goods, [health] can become a vessel for self-absorption and for decadence. It can cause us to abandon our commitment to our highest principles, and to mortgage the future to avert the present pain.”

Levin and nailed it in my view. We murder our unborn children mostly because they are a terrible inconvenience to us, and then we murder other children in order for many to give birth to the one kind of child we want at the right time. This is not about justice, it is about hedonism.

If you want two very insightful articles on what ails our bioethical sensibilities, read Smith here and Levin here.