Stem Cell Researchers Make ALS Advances Without Destroying Human Life

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 1, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Stem Cell Researchers Make ALS Advances Without Destroying Human Life

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
August 1
, 2008

Boston, MA ( — Researchers at Harvard and Columbia have made advances dealing with ALS and stem cells without having to destroy human life. The scientists were able to use a new technique to transform the skin cells of patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease into motor neurons.

The process may one day be able to create tailor-made cells to replace the damaged ones and either reverse or slow down the deadly disease.

An article on the research is scheduled for the July 31 edition of the medical journal Science describes the direct reprogramming process used to make the stem cells revert back to an embryonic-like state.

Study co-author Chris Henderson, a professor of pathology, neurology and neuroscience at Columbia talked with Science Daily about the news.

"Up until now, it’s been impossible to get access to the neurons affected by ALS and, although everyone was excited by the potential of the new technology, it was uncertain that we would be able to obtain them from patients’ skin cells," he said.

"Our paper now shows that we can generate hundreds of millions of motor neurons that are genetically identical to a patient’s own neurons. This will be an immense help as we try to uncover the mechanisms behind this disease and screen for drugs that can prolong life," he said.

The motor neurons were created using a new technique that reprograms human adult skin cells into cells that resemble embryonic stem cells.

The technique used to make these cells – called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – was a major advance in the field that was first reported last November by researchers in Japan and Wisconsin.

Those studies used skin cells from healthy adults, but it remained unknown whether iPS cells could be created with cells from chronically-ill patients and then transformed into neurons

The Columbia-Harvard team, in this paper, showed this was possible using an ALS patient’s skin cells.

Bioethicist Wesley Smith says the news is a victory for pro-life advocates who have pressed for ethical stem cell research that doesn’t involve the destruction of human life in human cloning or embryonic stem cell science.

"One of benefits of human cloning, we were told, would be the ability to clone someone with a disease like ALS to obtain stem cells from the embryo for disease study," he said. "Indeed, before he decided to abandon cloning in favor of iPSCs, that is precisely what Ian Wilmut had a license to do in the UK."

"Well, so far no human cloned embryonic stem cells have been derived despite years of trying," he explained. "But in less than one year since the first iPSC human line was created, that precise achievement has already been accomplished.
Smith said the news is an amazing achievement that comes because of President Bush’s courage not to force taxpayers to fund embryonic stem cell research. That has allowed ethical alternatives to flourish.

"Think of it: no women’s health endangered from egg extraction, no instrumentalization of human life, few brave new world worries. A true win-win," Smith concluded.


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