Brave New Future
Working together with stem cells.


On Tuesday, two scientific journals announced news of a breakthrough that could put an end to our dead-end political debates about stem-cell research. In response to the news, National Review Online asked a group of experts: How big is Tuesday’s new somatic-cell reprogramming news? Where does the stem-cell/cloning debate go from here? How should politics respond? Here’s what they had to say.

Dr. Maureen Condic
Direct reprogramming of human cells to produce “induced pluripotent state” or iPS cells is one of the most significant scientific findings of the twenty-five years. The power of direct reprogramming is that it generates stem cells that are genetically identical to patients without destroying human embryos or using human or animal eggs.  The iPS approach resolves the major ethical and practical difficulties associated with human cloning, and is therefore superior to cloning as a means of obtaining patient-specific pluripotent stem cells. While there are legitimate concerns regarding the safety of iPS cells for use in human patients, these concerns can almost certainly be addressed using currently available scientific technology.

Direct reprogramming very significantly alters the political and scientific landscape surrounding stem cell research. Because direct reprogramming is scientifically fascinating, remarkably simple and unrestricted for federal funding, the number of laboratories conducting stem cell research is likely to expand enormously, greatly accelerating the pace of discovery. The availability of an ethically and scientifically uncompromised source of pluripotent stem cells should be warmly embraced by all parties as a truly win-win resolution to the long-standing controversy over embryo-destructive research.

 – Maureen L. Condic, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, School of Medicine.

William Hurlbut

The news represents very hopeful progress toward a complete resolution to the stem-cell impasse. I think the president deserves a lot of credit for challenging our nation to find a way forward with consensus. Likewise Rick Santorum and Norm Coleman in the Senate. It’s amazing and shameful that Congress couldn’t bring itself to support funding for such projects. Did you know that both Hillary and Obama voted against Coleman’s bill? Not what I’d call genuine leadership.

Another less evident but very important voice in this has been Mitt Romney. Three years ago he saw the “alternative methods” as a way forward through our national conflict and invited me back to the Massachusetts statehouse to talk with him about Altered Nuclear Transfer — and, in all fairness, I have to say that he struck me as genuinely and solidly pro-life at that time.

So, at least with regard to our national politics, it’s a sad chapter with a happy ending. It’s clear now there will be a solution, probably from both Direct Reprogramming and Altered Nuclear Transfer. If we hadn’t turned it into a partisan battle, the answer would have come months ago. If the money spent to fight over Proposition 71 (in California) and Amendment 2 (in Missouri) had been put to positive application in research, we might be years ahead of where we are now in advancing stem-cell research.

William B. Hurlbut is a physician and consulting physician at the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University.

Leon R. Kass

Reprogramming of human somatic cells to pluripotency is an enormously significant achievement, one that boosters of medical progress and defenders of human dignity can celebrate without qualification. The evidence in the papers released Tuesday is complete and compelling: Cells as versatile and useful as embryonic stem cells, obtained without embryo creation and destruction or the need to exploit women for eggs. Best of all, these cells can be created from everyone — permitting the study of cells with different diseases and genetic makeup and, when stem-cell-based therapies eventually become available, providing rejection-proof tissues for personalized transplantation. The ethical and political benefits may be equally great. The alleged need for so-called therapeutic cloning — cloning embryos for research — is now passé. We can therefore disentangle the “life issue” of embryo-destruction from the “dignity issue” of baby manufacture, and enact a legislative ban on cloning and other degrading forms of baby-making, as recommended unanimously by the President’s Council on Bioethics: Prohibit all attempts to conceive a child by any means other the union of egg and sperm, both obtained from adults. Erecting such a barrier against the brave new world would be a great achievement, one that pro-lifers can now happily embrace without reservation.

Leon R. Kass, M.D., is Hertog Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jennifer Lahl
Tuesday’s news on the somatic-cell reprogramming advances couldn’t have come at a better time. Amidst a cloning-research agenda that clamors for millions of human eggs and competes with the IVF industry to be able to pay hefty sums of money for those eggs, it is a great day to know that research will not progress at the expense of our young women. Kyoto University in particular, has quietly been pursuing techniques to reprogram human skin cells back to an embryonic-like state for some time now. The university’s strategic decision not to pursue embryo cloning research comes from a desire not to be embroiled in the ongoing fierce ethics debate — and they realize the dangerous health risks to young women in procuring their eggs. These researchers appear earnest in their pursuit of ethical science, and serious about the discovery of treatments for real patients that don’t come at the expense of others. Ends don’t always justify the means. And how we get somewhere is often more important than just getting there. For those of us who work tirelessly to stave off the cloning agenda, this is a happy day, one which we can be particularly thankful for this season!

– Jennifer Lahl is national director of the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.

Peter Augustine Lawler

We’re clearly on the verge of developing one or more ways of readily acquiring pluripotent stem cells without having to destroy embryos. We can marvel that there is a technical solution to a moral problem, until we remember that the problem was the product of a very specific stage in scientific or technological progress. Even before the most recent breakthroughs, there was no reason not to expect such a solution.