Direct cell reprogramming to grow a new organ and the ice bucket challenge

A recent article in The Guardian reports on an interview with Clare Blackburn of the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh where they have recently been able to induce a direct transformation of mouse skin fibroblasts into thymic epithelial cells. When these induced thymic epithelial cells were mixed with other thymus cell types and transplanted into mice they grew into a fully structured thymus complete with cortex and medulla. One of the interesting things with their research is that it did not involve the use of stem cells. Much work in regenerative medicine currently involves the production of induced pluripotent stem cells which are then transformed into the cell types that are desired. This and other research has begun to show that the step of producing the induced pluripotent stem cell is not necessary and techniques are being developed to directly transform cells such as fibroblasts directly into the desired cells. In this case those cells were then capable of be used in the formation of an organized and fully functional organ after transplantation into a mouse.

The ethical significance of this is that it moves regenerative medicine research one step farther away from embryonic stem cells. The argument for the use of embryonic stem cells has been that in spite of the ethical concerns embryonic stem cell research is necessary to make progress in regenerative medicine. Those opposed to embryonic stem cell research due to their concern about the destruction of human embryos inherent in that research have been pointing out for some time that the most successful research was being done with adult stem cells and that induced pluripotent stem cells could serve the functions desired from embryonic stem cells without the ethical problems. Now it is becoming clear that even the induced pluripotent stems cells may not be needed as we learn how to transform adult progenitor cells such as fibroblasts into other cell types by genetic manipulation. The more these methods succeed, the less demand there is for embryonic stem cells. The argument that embryonic stem cell research is necessary becomes harder and harder to make.

What does that have to do with the ice bucket challenge? That social media phenomenon has been raising money for the ALS Association. There has been some push-back recently on Facebook saying that the ALS Association is a supporter of embryonic stem cell research and that those who understand embryo-destructive research to be wrong, including Christians, should be careful about donating to an organization that supports unethical research. That led to the ALS Association releasing a statement on 8/26/14 which says that the association primarily funds adult stem cell research and currently has only one study that they are funding which uses embryonic stem cells and that is a study being funded by one specific donor. They say that donors can stipulate that their donations not be used to support embryonic stem cell research. They do not address what their position on embryonic stem cell research has been in the past, but emphasize that they desire to fund research showing promise of success and that most of the research showing that promise is not embryonic stem cell research. A practical result of the success of adult stem cell research and research on the direct transformation of fibroblasts into other cell types has been a diminishing of support for embryonic stem cell research by those who fund research to find cures for specific diseases. True to the ethical views of our society which tend to be consequential, the research that gets supported is the research that has shown results. Fortunately in this case it happens to be the research with the least ethical problems. That may not always be the case.

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Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund
5 years ago

Well put. Again, the issue is ethical means and conduct of research, and research that requires the creation or destruction of human embryos is not ethical. We are on thin ice if we base arguments on “what works.” Steve, I’m sure you agree with that.

Scientists regard human ESCs as the “gold standard.” Certainly that is the case if the question is, what is a naturally occurring pluripotent or totipotent cell like. If the question is, what cells are most suited for cellular therapy, it is far less obvious that hESCs are the gold standard.

Over at the California Stem Cell Report (http://californiastemcellreport.blogspot.com/), the writer (August 20 post) characterizes ethical objections to hESC research as “virulent.” That’s unfortunate at least. Certainly the statement by the Ohio Diocese was principled and temperate, and, indeed, the response by the ALS society (as Steve describes it) is temperate as well.