Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Hope vs. Human Embryonic Stem Cells Hype

Steve Phillips’ recent blog (Exaggerated response to a limited clinical study, January 25) is an excellent exposé of the recent hype surrounding the purported success of hESC treatment for blindness. Of course, the news media jumped on the stem cell bandwagon without stopping to inspect the wheels. Phillips was correct to question the media’s motivation – after all, why praise a treatment that may not be all that it’s cracked up to be, while at the same time ignoring some of the promising results of iPSCR?

For example, just last week (January 25) the journal Nature reported that, “Scientists have successfully replicated Alzheimer’s disease neurons with stem cells for the first time in a landmark, multi-year study – an achievement that may lead to critical new understanding of the disease, the scientists said.”[1] Replicating Alzheimer’s neurons may make it possible to study the onset of the disease as well as develop drugs for treatment. Given that over 5 million people in the U.S. suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, not to mention that it is the 6th leading cause of death, you would think that this recent report merits national headlines. The difference between the first report on treatment for blindness and the report in Nature is that the Alzheimer’s study utilized induced pluripotent stem cells, a procedure that does not entail the destruction of human embryos.

To be fair, Fox News and ABC mentioned the Alzheimer’s report on their websites. But the story didn’t seem to receive the same degree of attention as the treatment for blindness report (I searched in vain on CNN’s website for the Alzheimer’s report. They did, however, report on the hESC treatment for blindness). Furthermore, I should mention that the iPSC Alzheimer’s study is in its early stages and it may take years before it bears any fruit.

Regardless of who wins the race between hESCs and iPSCs, success should not be based merely on utilitarian results. If it’s morally wrong to destroy human embryos for research, however profitable, then the matter is, or at least should be, settled. On the other hand, if I were a betting man, I would place my wager on the option that shows the most promise but without the unethical baggage that hESC carries.


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Jon Holmlund, M.D. Recent comment authors
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Jon Holmlund, M.D.
Jon Holmlund, M.D.

I think Gary and Steve’s recent posts on the hESC world are generally on point, and would add just a few thoughts: First, we should, on ethical grounds, oppose either creating or destroying human embryos for research. Just to put the fine point on it. Second, my understanding is that hESCs are of interest to scientists not just as cellular therapy, but for laboratory tests of the toxicity, embryotoxicity, or teratogenicity of new drugs, as controls for iPSC experiments (how do iPSCs compare to ESCs?), for disease modeling, and just for basic science interest. All of these pose the basic… Read more »