Wednesday, October 10, 2012

YAMANAKA gets the Nobel Prize

Your scribe was giving a talk to a group of doctors in Sydney last night (Tuesday 9th Oct) on "Ethical stem cell science & the Death of Cloning", and on entering the warm and welcoming Irish pub I was informed of the grand news that Shinya Yamanaka had been awarded the Nobel prize for medicine.

The citation did not say it was for slaying the monster of human cloning, or for managing to achieve the good things of stem cell research without even messing with human eggs or creating and killing human embryos. It should have, but the poor lefties in the Nobel committee (remember, the ones who gave the brand new President Obama the Peace Prize for Not Being George Bush) were so averse to  appearing to reward ethical stem cell science that they had to give the prize as a double act with some gentleman from the UK who does do cloning.

Never mind. Yamanaka has done something so important for the protection of humanity from the depredations of anti-human science that he should have had the Peace Prize too.

We toasted you in our Sydney pub, Professor, for what you have given to this exciting field of research and - even more so - what you have done to deflect a great harm from our children's generation.

Excerpt from my Quadrant review "Cloning - the Blighted Science":


The scientific landscape changed suddenly and irrevocably on the 21st November 2007, in what was described as “an earthquake for both the science and politics of stem cell research”[i].

On that day the Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka published his breakthrough of iPSC “direct reprogramming”, creating the equivalent of cloned embryonic stem cells directly from the skin cells of a middle-aged woman,[ii] bypassing any need for eggs or embryos.

"This is the Holy Grail - to be able to take a few cells from a patient and then turn them into stem cells in the laboratory," acknowledged Dr Robert Lanza, a cloning researcher from Advanced Cell Technology in Boston.[iii]
The clearest sign that a revolution was upon us was the headline in a British paper: “Dolly creator Prof Ian Wilmut shuns cloning”. The king of cloning, who had brought us the first cloned mammal and who held the license to clone human embryos in the UK, declared that he was abandoning the field he had founded:

Instead Prof Wilmut is backing direct reprogramming, the embryo-free route pursued by Prof Yamanaka, which he finds “100 times more interesting”… as well as “easier to accept socially." [iv]

The other great pioneer of embryo research likewise deferred to the Yamanaka method. Professor James Thomson, the scientist who first identified human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in 1998, published a study on the same day as Yamanaka confirming that these new stem cells derived from human skin had every property of stem cells derived from embryos – but none of the ethical and political baggage.[v] He told the New York Times it would not be long “before the stem cell wars are a distant memory”.

“A decade from now, this (controversy) will be just a funny historical footnote,” Dr Thomson said. More work remains, but he is confident that the path ahead is clear. "Isn't it great to start a field and then to end it?"[vi]

This sense that one era had ended and another commenced in stem cell science was reinforced in a review of the Yamanaka revolution by Professor Martin Pera. He was formerly director of ESC research at the Australian National Stem Cell Centre and his article, “Stem cells: a new year and a new era” was published in Nature in January 2008:[vii]

Manipulating cells from adult human tissue, scientists have generated cells with the same developmental potential as embryonic stem cells. The research opportunities these exciting observations offer are limitless. The generation of induced pluripotent stem cells through direct reprogramming avoids the difficult ethical controversies surrounding the use of embryos for deriving stem cells.

The response was everywhere the same: this is marvellous science, and it gets rid of the social and ethical stress of obtaining eggs and exploiting embryos. The potential for this development to bypass the central ethical objection to cloning was recognized by Professor Loane Skene, former Chair of the Lockhart Review which advised the Australian government in 2005 to permit cloning. On the day Yamanaka’s iPSC research was published she told ABC radio:

What this does is take away the step of using the egg and creating the embryo which is particularly ethically contentious, and it offers the opportunity to get stem cells that are matched to a particular person. [viii] 

In that succinct statement, one of our chief advocates for cloning reminds us of the goal that cloning failed to reach – getting stem cells that exactly match the patient – and acknowledges that this new method not only attains that goal, but is free from ethical concerns.

The new post-cloning era was summed up in January 2008 by a leading Australian researcher, Dr TJ Martin, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne:

In the past few months the scientific situation has changed dramatically in ways that should make therapeutic cloning a historical peculiarity. iPSCs have been shown to have all the properties previously attributed to embryonic stem cells, and thus provide a means of preparing individually tailored pluripotent cells without the ethical problems involved in therapeutic cloning.  To this must be added the fact that iPSCs can readily be prepared, whereas human therapeutic cloning has never been achieved. If it ever had been, it is such an inefficient process that it would always have required unacceptably large numbers of egg donations by women. There is no valid reason for any government to consider approval of therapeutic cloning that requires nuclear transfer into human eggs. Indeed, it would be prudent to have the 2006 federal legislation taken off the books. [ix]

In light of that authoritative summary we should ask the obvious question: What possible justification is there now for human cloning, given the success of the iPSC alternative?  Who would take seriously the proposal that I obtain hundreds of eggs from women (at significant risk to their health) and spend vast amounts of research money in order to clone you into your identical twin embryo, in order to obtain pluripotent stem cells that match you genetically (something nobody has yet managed to achieve) when I could simply take a skin cell from your arm and obtain the equivalent stem cells easily and ethically using Yamanaka’s direct reprogramming?

........Likewise, Time magazine asks whether there is anything left to argue over since Yamanaka’s breakthrough: 

No embryos, no eggs, no hand-wringing over where the cells came from and whether it was ethical to make them in the first place. Yamanaka's and Thomson's work sidestepped that altogether, raising the tantalizing question: Is the long-raging stem-cell debate at last over? Yamanaka thinks it might be.  Other giants of the field seem to agree.[i]

[i] Rolands J, Centre for Genetics & Society, Oakland CA at
[vii] Pera MF. Stem cells. A new year and a new era. Nature. 2008 Jan 10;451(7175):135-6.
[viii] Prof Loane Skene comments re Yamanaka at