The Japanese Health Ministry has approved the first human clinical trial involving induced pluripotent stem cells (know as iPSCs), which are taken from a patient’s epithelial tissue for use elsewhere in his body. The trial will remove skin cells from six adults who suffer from age-related macular degeneration; scientists at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe will then attempt to develop the cells into retinal tissue for transplant back to each patient’s eyes.
The outcome of the treatment is by no means assured; the trial will take four years to complete, and as the National Institutes of Health explain, the process of virally introducing the characteristics that return the cells to an undifferentiated state brings with it a significant risk of cancer. Nevertheless, the approval of the human clinical trial represents yet another advance for adult stem cells relative to their embryonic counterparts. Embryos used for scientific purposes end up being destroyed, a practice that raises serious ethical questions. Both adult stem cells (which are harvested from certain organs, including bone marrow) and iPSCs (which are usually taken from skin) have shown far greater promise than embryonic stem cells, as detailed in 2009 by the late Dr. Bernardine Healy, former health editor of U.S. News & World Report.
According to Agence France-Presse, project leader Masayo Takahashi told a Japanese newspaper, “Because no one in the world has used iPS cells in a clinical trial, what we are doing will set the standard. It’s a daunting prospect, but one that brings joy.” Lovers of human life should share in the rejoicing, both for a promising treatment for those suffering, and for a technology that spares embryonic human life.