Friday, June 26, 2009

Watch this show! ABC TV ‘gets it’ re the iPS revolution

Last night we saw that rarest thing: a nearly-accurate presentation of stem cell science on television. At last, the popular programmes – from Oprah in the US, to this more serious show, Catalyst, in Australia – are getting the message right (and maybe without even reading this Blog…):

"You are about to witness what the Science journal described as 'breakthrough of the year'. Where stem cells are created from ordinary adult cells, without the use of eggs or embryos."

There is first a detour through the history of ESCs – where they politely avoid the issue of tumour formation, but do refer to the immune-rejection problem - and then a reference to ASCs – where the weary old fallacy shows up (that lacking pluripotency is a disadvantage of ASC – whereas, as we know, it is a curse to be pluripotent: it makes you a dangerous, tumour-forming nuisance). These supposedly less useful 'multipotent' ASCs are shown, in another segment of the show, being use as therapy for damaged cartilage – in both a horse and a patient. No tumours there! All good. See Noticeable by their absence from any actual therapies are those little ESCs which are supposedly so much more 'potent'… Hey ho…

Next, the story returns to the Gee-Wizz headline about the iPS revolution:

"And in 2008, scientists did that successfully with human cells. They're called Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, or iPS cells. Now in theory, any cell in our body can become like an embryonic stem cell. … Researchers are still figuring out how this amazing transformation takes place. Put simply you start with an adult cell, say a skin cell. You then insert four genes into the cell, the kind of genes responsible for regulating the cells development. And that effectively reprograms the cell, wipes the slate clean and sends it back to the embryonic state. You can then direct it to become any cell you like, say a heart cell."

Enter Prof Bob Williamson. This is the same scientist, spokesman for the AAS on cloning, who brought you the most offensive furphy in the early stages of the cloning debate – that cloning does not really create a human embryo (he called it an 'intermediate cellular product', as I recall). That argument was designed to remove the moral sting from cloning, since if it does not create a living human embryo, what is the big fuss? But eventually even Loane Skene of the Lockhart Committee admitted that – as with Dolly the sheep – SCNT cloning does indeed create a human embryo, which could, in theory, be born as a baby.

Interviewed for last night's show, the Professor appeared to be on song with the South Australian scientists who recently tried to denigrate iPS to MPs: try to smear iPS as being somehow uniquely 'dangerous', and therefore make the case (as in SA) that 'we still need to do cloning and ESC research…'

Here it is:

"But Bob Williamson urges we proceed with caution before injecting genetically modified IPS cells into people.
"Obviously we have to know whether IPS cells can cause cancer or not and we don't even know that with certainty."

Cancer! Injecting cancer-causing cells into people! That gives iPS a real 'danger' label. Smart politics, but not a scientifically transparent statement of the equivalence, in terms of any 'dangers', of the new iPS and the old ESC. No, what a scientist in Prof Williamson's position might have explained to the viewer is this:

"Obviously we would never inject iPS cells into people any more than we would inject ESC into people. You can't do that, as they both form tumours. We can only inject ASCs into people. What we can do with ESC and iPS cells is study genetic disease and develop drugs against those diseases. And of course, dear viewer, any useful research an ESC could do an iPS can also do - because they are functionally identical cells. Indeed, the iPS is superior because it is an exact genetic match of the patient, while an ESC could only be a genetic match if one first clones the patient into an embryo, in order to destroy it for its stem cells… What sort of mug science is that, undertaking the ethically contentious, enormously expensive and technically difficult (indeed impossible, so far) act of SCNT cloning for stem cells, when you can so easily obtain the exact same research cells by scratching off a bit of skin?"

And then we have another worried comment from the Professor, this time on the troubling ethics (I jest not) of iPS: "the idea that every cell in your body has the potential to become an embryo, is itself a slightly scary thought". In the context of this TV story, his comment is another subliminal message of caution about these worrying little iPS cells - and it is a load of nonsense. There is only one cell in anyone's body that can 'become an embryo' and that is the oocyte. The woman's egg alone has the totipotency (that's one up on pluripotency) to 'become an embryo' once fertilised (or once tricked by cloning into 'thinking' it's been fertilised). Other cells can provide the nuclear DNA for SCNT cloning, and thereby act as a bogus 'sperm' - but they lack the cellular machinery for forming the whole show - placenta and embryo together. Prof Williamson is mistaken; no other cell in the body can ever develop into an embryo. Therefore his ethical suggestion that 'any cell' is now, since iPS, somehow morally equivalent to an embryo is misguided. It harkens back to his original attempt to degrade the true embryo created by cloning - to the status of an 'intermediate cellular product'; this time the moral equivalence smear is to upgrade 'any cell in our body' to the moral status of a potential embryo, and therefore remove the 'specialness' of the embryo.

Very disappointing spin coming from an honest scientist.

We can look forward to plenty more muddying of the waters by embryo-research advocates as we head into the cloning review next year. Yet shows like the ABC Catalyst of 25th June 2009 show that the truth of the redundancy of embryo experimentation is going to be harder to obscure behind scientific smokescreens.

Dr Margaret Somerville: why embryo experimentation is wrong – and unnecessary

Another pithy summary of the arguments for and against ESC research – from a professional ethicist (of Australian origin).

Well worth a read for those who want to think like an adult, not like a sound-bite-juvenile.


First, why embryo experimentation is wrong:

"We are all ex-embryos and are all in the process of becoming, from conception to death… Human embryo stem cell research kills embryos and destroys that potential. The central ethical issue it raises is: What does the value of respect for human life require that we not do to human embryos?"


And later, why embryo experimentation is redundant:

"As mentioned already, there are now ethically uncontroversial alternatives for obtaining pluripotent stem cells -- iPS technology. This is an example of science being able to solve ethical problems rather than creating them… Stem cells can also be obtained from umbilical cord blood or consenting adults. So far somewhere around 200 therapies have been developed from these ethically uncontroversial alternatives, while none have yet come from embryo stem cells."


But that snapshot does no justice to such an elegant, if brief, review of the subject. For the full article, pick up a copy of the Ottawa Citizen from the 22nd June – or click here:



Saturday, June 20, 2009

Caplan Capitulates on Cloning…

Hidden here in the Scientist Blog from Thursday 17th is another 'moment of truth' – this time from the noted bioethicist and not-usual-suspect, Arthur Caplan: "the odds are that cloning for research is never going to work".

Sweet on the ear. And scientifically correct. Cloning has been dead in the water at least since November 2007, despite the millions of dollars expended since then, and the dozens of desecrated human offspring. Nobody has managed to get a cloned human embryo to live long enough to form its inner cell mass of stem cells – those magic 'patient-matched' pluripotent stem cells that justified cloning in the first place. Meantime, the exact same patient-matched pluripotent stem cells have now been produced easily, cheaply, and surely by iPS direct reprogramming. Already we have hundreds of such stem cell lines up and running. Cloning, ladies and gents, is withering on the vine and will soon become mere pseudo-scientific compost…

Yet still the embryo lobby acts as if drunk on this rotting fruit, lurching around, refusing to admit that there is a better, less contentious science at hand.

Sadly, the mere ethical objection against creating living human embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them will never cause them to sober up. The only motives for them to kick their cloning habit will be the gangbuster success of the alternative, iPS, and the prospect of litigation from women injured in obtaining the necessary thousands of eggs for these experiments.

This prospect of obtaining more eggs from women is the subject of debate in this Scientist blog. New York State has now broken another rule of ethical research by proposing to buy eggs from (predictably poor) women – a decision reached following, of course, 'extensive deliberation' from its obliging ethics team.

Two issues: the possible exploitation of the poor by making women's ovaries a tradable commodity:

Many critics, including Father Thomas Berg, director of the Catholic think tank Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person, argue that compensation will lead to the exploitation of poor and disenfranchised women. Paying women as much as $10,000 -- the upper limit under the ESSCB's directives -- will "create an undue inducement" that will put vulnerable women at risk, he said. "It's precedent setting."

Second issue, whether obtaining eggs for SCNT cloning is even justified scientifically. Enter Caplan:

"I don't think it's a good idea," Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Scientist.

It's "more ethically acceptable" to pay women to harvest eggs for in vitro fertilization programs because donor eggs have proven successful in assisted fertility treatments. With stem cell research, "the risk benefit ratio starts to slide," Caplan said. "It's a lot iffier a proposition and I think that makes a difference. In research you don't know what you're going to get, and the odds are that cloning for research is never going to work."

Of course, others continue to urge the need for women's eggs. The bioethicist for Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), a keen cloning company, speaks for the affirmative:

Ronald M. Green, a bioethicist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said he's "glad to see" the ESSCB's decision. Green, who serves pro bono on the ethics advisory board of Advanced Cell Technology, a Massachusetts-based biotech company, said that it's ethical and necessary to pay women to donate eggs for stem cell research if researchers want to investigate the potential of therapeutic cloning.

ACT is especially clear on the need for human eggs, given their recent publication showing that the animal option – rabbit or pig eggs, for instance – is an utter failure. See the Blog on 'More nails in cloning's coffin: Frankenbunny RIP'.

Here, then, is the story on the latest desperate move by 'progressives' to shore up the crumbling edifice of SCNT cloning. Too late, and not worth the trouble, I am glad to say…

The Scientist: NewsBlog: NY to pay for eggs for research - 17th June 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

Smart private money backs adult stem cells

From this week's FORTUNE magazine, the rich people's rag, another greenshoot of commonsense on stem cell science.

We have already have seen that notably rich man, Al Gore, invest many of his own millions in iPS. And we heard some sound advice to Mum and Dad investors on the Oprah episode where that notable salesman for embryo experimentation, Michael J Fox, had his portfolio priorities trashed by Dr Oz.

Now another confirmation that smart money, if not serious ethics, will be the one to give the thumbs down to embryonic 'therapies' and get on with the serious business of using iPS and ASCs. Only dumb public money (as per Obama) will continue to be squandered on desecrating embryos.

Note the standard journalistic trope about embryo cells being possibly more useful for treatments in the long-term... that is a mindless mantra which readers of this Blog could demolish in a few short sharp blows:

1. You can never use ESCs as treatment, since they form tumours (unlike safe ASCs);

2. If you only want to derive secondary cells as 'treatment' (as per Geron Corp) then you would always do better to use iPS cells as the 'factory cells', as they are genetic matches - whereas ESCs are not;

3. smart money says the default position is always to use cheap and simple iPS cells, as they are easy to obtain, superior as research material, and ethically non-contentious...

No, the journos will someday realise how vacuous their comments are about ESCs, which remain inferior in every way to iPS - let alone to ASC.

Adult stem cells are a promising market
Amid controversies over embryonic stem cell research, drugs using adult
cells are already bearing fruit.

By Anna Kattan, contributor
Last Updated: June 16, 2009: 11:03 AM ET

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- When it comes to stem cells, the public -- and the
media -- tend to focus on embryos. But researchers and analysts say
marketable therapies already are emerging from less controversial work
with adult stem cells.

Adult cells make up the lion's share of the stem cell space, mainly
because they are easier to come by than embryonic cells, and less expensive to
run in clinical trials. They are also derived from mature tissue, like bone
marrow or umbilical cord blood, so they avoid the ethical debate that
surrounds embryonic stem cells.

To be sure, many researchers consider embryonic stem cells to be more
versatile, and they may someday be more useful than adult stem cells in
treating diseases. But researchers also hope adult stem cells can help
them combat a variety of maladies from diabetes to heart disease.

In fact, adult stem cells are currently the only type of stem cells used
in transplants to treat diseases, such as cancers like leukemia.

Furthermore, researchers are far closer to commercializing drugs based
on adult stem cells than any product based on embryonic stem cells.

Read the full article…

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Adult stem cells repair corneal blindness

Here is a tidy NSW application of our ever-versatile adult stem cells.


Corneal regeneration in humans has been around for some years using adult stem cells, but here a simple contact lens is used as the vehicle for applying the stem cells to the damaged surface.


Safe, cheap, and obviously "non-controversial", as Loane Skene (of the Lockhart Committee on human cloning and embryo research) points out.


To use cloning or embryos to obtain stem cells would not only be controversial, it would be plain stupid – as the cells are so second-rate: lacking the perfect immune match of our own stem cells, and likely to provoke tumours (and of course the exact same concern of tumours applies even to iPS cells).


Behold the future (and the present) of safe and effective stem-cell therapy: our own, simple, non-controversial cells.


Full story at:,27574,25549740-36398,00.html


COATING a common contact lens with stem cells could help restore a person's sight, Australian scientists have found.

University of New South Wales medical researchers used the technique to treat the damaged corneas of three patients, all of whose vision improved within weeks of the groundbreaking procedure. The results are published in the journal Transplant.

Stem cells were harvested from the eyes of each patient and then cultured inside a contact lens, which was then stuck onto a damaged cornea in a "transplant'' of regenerative cells.

"The procedure is totally simple and cheap,'' said the university's Dr Nick Di Girolamo. The procedure could be replicated in third would countries by a surgeon with a laboratory for cell culture, Dr Di Girolamo said.

It offered hope to people with a range of blinding eye conditions, he said, and there was also the possibility of adapting the technique to repair skin which behaved in a similar way to the eye.

The stem cell procedure was considered non-controversial, said former Deputy Chair of the Lockhart Committee on human cloning and embryo research Professor Loane Skene.