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.