New Embryonic-Like Stem Cell Method Ethical, But Used Abortion Tissue

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jan 9, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

New Embryonic-Like Stem Cell Method Ethical, But Used Abortion Tissue Email this article
Printer friendly page

by Steven Ertelt Editor
January 9,

Washington, DC ( — A new method of generating embryonic-like stem cells by getting adult stem cells to reverse back to their former embryonic state is still ethical a top pro-life bioethicist says. That’s despite new information showing the studies involved the use of viruses containing fetal tissue from babies who were victims of abortion.

Children of God for Life, a pro-life group dedicated to exposing how fetal tissue obtained from abortions is used in vaccines, contacted earlier in the week with the new information.

Debi Vinnedge, the director of the group, told that she has concerns about the November studies authored by Shinya Yamanaka and James Thomson that were hailed as pro-life alternatives to embryonic stem cell research.

The two scientists released studies in the medical journals Science and Cell that claim to have found a way — called direct reprogramming — to make adult stem cells revert to their embryonic form.

The studies confirm that human skin cells (fibroblasts) can be used to make pluripotent stem cells (called iPSCs) sharing essentially all the features of human embryonic stem cells. Unlike "normal" embryonic stem cell research, they didn’t destroy human embryos to obtain the cells.

However, Vinnedge told early Tuesday that researchers used several versions of the 293 aborted fetal cell lines to modify the DNA of the host adult skin cells in order to accomplish the reprogramming.

"Unless you read the papers published by Dr Yamanaka in Cell and Dr Thomson in Science, you would have no idea where the DNA came from that was used to transform the adult cells," she said.

"And even then you would have to know what you were looking for to understand it," she added.

Vinnedge says both scientists used the same aborted fetal cell line to produce DNA for use in their experiments.

However, though the use of fetal tissue from babies killed in abortions is morally repugnant, Dr. David Prentice of the Family Research Council told on Wednesday that the technique itself is ethical because it doesn’t have to involve the use of it.

"Scientists will tend to use the easiest, cheapest tools at hand, and what they’re used to, not always the best tools," the former Indiana State University professor said. "They are using older, established cell lines, commonly used for virus production, but the cell lines were indeed derived from aborted fetal tissue."

Prentice said the concerns with the reprogramming research are similar to those with vaccines.

"The criticism is about their starting material, not the iPSC technique, just as the vaccine criticism is about which cells are used to grow the viruses for vaccines, not the concept of vaccination,’ he told

"So, they could have used adult or newborn cells exclusively, both for virus production and for starting material for the experiment, and there would have been no criticism," he said.

Prentice said Vinnedge’s efforts to get scientists to stop using tissue or cells from abortions in otherwise ethical research is "certainly an admirable goal" — and it’s one that eventually may be accomplished.

"Frankly, given that scientists want to get away from viruses altogether, this will soon be a moot point," Dr. Prentice explained. "My sources indicate that probably within 12 months we will see non-viral (and also possibly non-DNA) tools used for the reprogramming."

As pro-life advocates yearn for ethical ways to use stem cells to help patients with devastating diseases that possibility would be another victory for ethical science.