Two teams of scientists, in Japan and the United States, report that they have turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic cells without having to make or destroy an embryo – a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.

All the scientists had to do was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such universal human cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.

Researchers and ethicists claim that now the debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot.

The director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Washington , Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk , says, « Everyone was waiting for this day to come. You should have a solution here that will address the moral objections that have been percolating for years. »

Most everyone agrees this has been a scientific breakthrough. Is it also a moral breakthrough?

In your opinion, is stem-cell research now morally acceptable?



  1. 1
    SUZANNE Says:

    There doesn’t seem to be a controversy here.

    Non-embryonic stem cells have always been acceptable to the pro-life movement. Your title is a bit deceptive.

  2. 2
    Cate McB Says:

    « Is it also a moral breakthrough? » Maybe & maybe not …

    Art Caplan, a leading bioethicist and Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, has commented recently in the following way:

    « In the Middle Ages, the alchemists believed someday they’d find a magical tool that could transmute lead into gold, metals into medicines and plants and animal tissues into powerful elixirs — a panacea that would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. This week, it appears that the object of their long-ago yearnings has been discovered. Scientists announced they have reprogrammed the genes of ordinary cells from human skin to make what I’m terming ‘panacea’ cells. These cells can be used to create embryonic-like stem cells that one day could fix many different disorders and diseases that are now beyond cure. »

    Among the bioethical debates swirling around the development of these ‘panacea’ cells, Caplan asks: « some may wonder if a reprogrammed panacea cell acts like an embryo, should it then be classified as a human embryo? » Also, « Is it right to repair ourselves if it means that we live much longer than any human being has ever lived? »

    From my clinical perspective, the last question about living much longer is very serious because technology has already made dying so much more difficult for so many people, not to mention the difficulties involved with living « much longer than any human being has ever lived. »

    And apart from the likelihood of even more complicated and intense problems associated with death and dying, there is the question of who will get these cells? Here in Canada, will more & more basic aspects of health care be de-listed from provincial funding plans so that a few select people can have panacea cells? They won’t come cheap for sure!! And profit will be the only issue for some researchers.

  3. 3


    Thanks for your informative comment. You raise two interesting points about panacea cells: their implications re longevity and their cost. Personally, I am not much interested in scientific research that will enable me to live to 120.

  4. 4
    Chimera Says:

    « …Caplan asks: ‘some may wonder if a reprogrammed panacea cell acts like an embryo, should it then be classified as a human embryo?' »

    When I first read about this, that was my first question!

    As Suzanne says, there is no controversy about skin cells.

    However, manipulate the genetic material a bit, and suddenly you have cells that cannot be differentiated from the cells that will grow into a fetus!

    Once the fetal rights people get that thought bouncing around in their synapses, you won’t be able to hear yourself for the howling…

  5. 5
    Barbara Says:

    Note that « panacea » is in quotes. Stem cells or stem cell-like systems have a long road ahead of them before they can safely effect what people imagine they can. Side effects have a way of eclipsing the intended ones. These are tremendously complicated systems about which we still know precious little.

  6. 6
    Chimera Says:

    « Note that “panacea” is in quotes. »

    Interesting point, and the question is, who put the quote marks there — Caplan or the reporter? And why? If Capalan put the quote marks there, what was his actual meaning?

  7. 7
    Barbara Says:

    I am not too much concerned who put it there. It belongs there.

  8. 8
    Chimera Says:

    Quote marks have specific uses and specific meanings related to those uses. Two purposes for them are to denote similarities but not exactness, and to show derision.

    It is important to know who put them there in order to better define their meaning. I won’t know for sure if they belong there until I know who it was that used them.

  9. 9
    Cate McB Says:

    Caplan put the quote marks around ‘panacea’. It’s a common way for philosophers like Caplan to demarcate their terminology, but additionally in this case, he’s putting it in quotes to warn us of the double-edged meaning: induced stem cells may be a panacea in the usual sense of the word, for some people at some point in time, but these cells may also prove to be quite the opposite of a panacea. As Barbara and many others have indicated, on the level of basic science, stem cell research is far from giving us the results for which many are hoping.

  10. 10
    Chimera Says:

    Thanks for clearing that up, Cate.

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  15. 16
    Chimera Says:

    Problem, Neil?

  16. 17
    Cate McB Says:

    Or an exercise in cloning? That’s another issue Neil.

  17. 18

    No problem and cloning is coming up.

  18. 19
    Paul Costopoulos Says:

    Look ladies and gentlemen, the actual utility of that discovery is decades away. Lots of questions need answering and much testing on animals before humans can be approached with experimental use of said ‘panacea ».
    Until then, philosophers, theologians and bioethicists will have destroyed many forests, unless they use recycled paper for their treaties and books of all kinds on the subject.
    Until then, maybe Scotty will be able to « beam us up ».

  19. 20
    Chimera Says:

    So, Paul, are you saying that we shouldn’t be discussing it now because it’s not a practicality, yet? Or are you suggesting that we should wait for the philosophers, theologians, and bioethicists to tell us what to think?

    ‘Cause I think now is a real good time to talk about it — before it grows legs and gets away from us. And I don’t allow anyone else to do my thinking for me.

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