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Human stem cells

Converting ordinary cells to Induced
Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS cells)

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Types of stem cells:

There were originally believed to be only two different types of stem cells:

bullet Embryonic stem cells: These are pluripotent. That is, they have the potential of developing into any of the 220 cell types in the human body (e.g. blood cells, heart cells, brain cells, muscle cells, bone cells, etc). Unfortunately, they can only be obtained from embryos in a process that causes their destruction. This causes very serious ethical problems among those who believe that human life becomes a human person at conception.

bullet Adult stem cells: These can be harvested from newborns, children and adults with few or no ethical concerns. However, they have already started to specialize and thus do not have the same level of flexibility as do embryonic stem cells. They have only limited potential usefulness.

A National Institutes of Health news release states:

"...research involving human pluripotent stem cells...promises new treatments and possible cures for many debilitating diseases and injuries, including Parkinson's disease, diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, burns and spinal cord injuries. The NIH believes the potential medical benefits of human pluripotent stem cell technology are compelling and worthy of pursuit in accordance with appropriate ethical standards." 1

A Japanese scientist, Shinya Yamanaka, at Kyoto University developed a technique in 2006 to create what are called Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS cells). The method converts a mature cell into one that exhibits many of the properties of embryonic stem cells. 2

It appears that mature cells from a person's body contain dormant genes that are associated with pluripotency -- the ability to become any of the 220 cell types in a human body. Yamanaka used viruses to insert four specific genes into ordinary mature cells to reactivate their pluripotency. Unfortunately, this foreign DNA might modify the genome and might disrupt later development or even cause cancer. Subsequent researchers experimented wth fewer genes and other viruses. These turned out to be safer but much less efficient.

Now, another method of producing iPS cells has been produced. It was developed by two groups of scientists -- one in Canada and the other in Scotland -- who discovered that each was working independently on a different aspect of iPS cell production. The two teams, one led by stem cell researcher Keisuke Kaji of the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and the other by developmental biologist Andras Nagy at Mount Sinai Hospital at the University of Toronto, decided to join forces.

Constance Holden of ScienceNOW Daily News writes:

"The work involves using an engineered chunk of DNA instead of a virus to introduce factors into a cell that will turn on genes needed for pluripotency. Nagy explains that the team used 'mobile DNA elements' called transposons that jump from one place to another in the chromosome. Although fragments of DNA called plasmids have been tried for the same purpose, Nagy says this is the first time a nonviral method has worked with human cells. What's more, he says, the team 'took advantage of the other property' of the system, which was that it could be mobilized via an enzyme, transposase, to effect the "seamless removal" of the foreign DNA without disrupting the newly gained pluripotency. So far, the teams have removed the genes in only mouse cells, but they soon expect to show it can also be done with human ones."

"Shinya Yamanaka, the Kyoto University researcher who authored the original report of iPS cells, says 'the transposon-based system seems simple and powerful' and 'should be extremely useful in understanding molecular events during iPS cell generation'."

"Stem cell researcher Konrad Hochedlinger of Harvard University, who last year reported using a safer type of virus to generate iPS cells agrees that 'these papers are an important advance.' But he says 'it remains unclear which treatment will be the best to produce iPS cells'."

"Hochedlinger and others warn that despite the lightning speed at which stem cell science is progressing, until scientists have a sure-fire method for creating ES-like cells, they still need to be able to work with the "gold standard" for pluripotent cells: cells from human embryos."

Keisuke Kaji said: "It is a step toward the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells." 5

Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research said: "For the time being I think it rather premature to suggest that their work will completely remove the need to derive human stem cells from embryos." 5

George Q. Daley, a stem cell researcher at Children's Hospital in Boston, said:

"It's very significantI think it's a major step forward in realizing the value of these cells for medical research." 7

Robert Lanza, a stem cell researcher at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, MA said:

"It's very exciting work. With the new work, we're only a hair's breadth away from the biggest prize in regenerative medicine -- a way to create patient-specific cells that are safe enough to use clinically." 7

[Personal note: As a Canadian, a descendent of Scots, and a graduate of the University of Toronto, I feel a sense of pride in this accomplishment, even though I had absolutely nothing to do with it.]

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Political and religious impact:

Some religious conservatives suggest that developments such as iPS cells mean that governments should stop funding embryonic stem cell research. Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said:

"Stem cell research that requires destroying embryos is going the way of the Model T. No administration that values science and medical progress over politics will want to divert funds now toward that increasingly obsolete and needlessly divisive approach."

Some scientists point out that work should proceed on both embryonic stem cells and iPS cells because it is not clear which approach will produce the better and more numerous treatments and cures. Mark A. Kay of Stanford University said:

"The point is, we don't know yet what the end potential of either of these approaches will be. No one has cured any disease in people with any of these approaches yet. We don't know enough yet to know which approach will be better." 6

A bit of humor, I think:

Martin Kilpatrick describes himself as a Minister in the Molecular Church of America. This is a religious group for which Google cannot find a website.

Commenting on the article in ScienceNOW, 3 he wrote:

"Interesting work though I don't think this will solve the ethical debate about stem cells. Transposons have rights too and many would question the morality of bringing an innocent transposon into this world for the sole purpose of creating stem cells, only to toss it away like a piece of trash when we don't need it anymore."  
"As a born-again molecularist I believe that every organic molecule (including transposons) has a soul and should be afforded the same rights as an early-stage human embryo. But it seems that our beliefs are not given the same respect as the 'mainstream' religions who have the power and money to dictate government policy."

"Greg" responded:

"I'm not sure American creationists will realize Martin Kilpatrick's is an ironic comment."

A guest responded:

"I agree with Martin Kilpatrick's comment and I don't think it is ironic at all."

Another guest asked:

"Are you also remorseful when you kill living yeast cells so your bread can rise? Yeast should have equal rights as transposons." 3

References used:

  1. "NIH publishes final guidelines for stem cell research," National Institutes of Health, 2000-AUG-23, at:
  2. Steven Ertelt, "IPS Cells, An Embryonic Stem Cell Research Alternative, Make Major Advance," LifeNews, 2009-MAR-02, at:
  3. Constance Holden, "A Better Way to Make Embryonic-like Stem Cells," ScienceNOW Daily News, 2009-MAR-02, at:
  4. Gretchen Vogel, "A New, Improved Stem Cell Recipe," ScienceNOW, 2008-SEP-26, at: (Requires subscription or pass)
  5. "Stem Cell Breakthrough May Eliminate Need for Embryonic Cells," Finding Dulcinea, 2009-MAR-02, at:
  6. Knut Woltjen, et al., "PiggyBac transposition reprograms fibroblasts to induced pluripotent stem cells," Nature, 2009-MAR-01, at: (Requires subscription or payment)
  7. Rob Stein, "Researchers Find Safer Way to Produce Stem Cell Alternative Skin Cells Transformed Without Worrisome Use of Viruses," Washington Post, 2009-MAR-02, at:

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Copyright 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original posting: 2009-MAR-05
Latest update: 2009-MAR-05
Compiled by B.A. Robinson

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