Sea change in cloning-based stem cell research shifts scientific and political debate

Press Statement
Close up image of stem cell with multiple colors.

New source of stem cells and statements by Wilmut weaken argument for use of cloning techniques, women's eggs

Today's announcement by researchers that they can create powerful stem cells from ordinary human body cells shifts both the scientific terrain and the contentious political debate, said the Center for Genetics and Society, a public interest organization.

The new stem cell technique has been called "direct reprogramming," and the cells it produces are termed "induced pluripotent stem" (iPS) cells.

"This is like an earthquake for both the science and politics of stem cell research," said CGS policy analyst Jesse Reynolds.

The prospect of producing pluripotent stem cells without either eggs or embryos signals a new chapter in the politics of stem cell research, said the Center, which supports embryonic stem cell research but has long argued that cloning-based techniques pose novel risks. Direct reprogramming promises to produce disease-specific stem cells for use in screening drugs and studying disease mechanisms, and patient-specific stem cells that researchers may learn to use for treatments and therapies - without relying on cloning and without requiring eggs from women.

Prof. Ian Wilmut, a world leader in cloning-based stem cell research, announced on Friday that he is abandoning such work due to these recent developments in induced pluripotent stem cells.

"If these results are as promising as they appear to be, they significantly undermine the case for cloning-based stem cell research," said Reynolds. "Wilmut's change of heart is significant. He holds one of two licenses in the UK to work on cloning techniques."

The new stem cell technique will impact the political landscape. "If these findings hold up, they could disconnect the stem cell debate from culture-war battles over embryo politics and abortion rights, and put an end to the use of embryonic stem cell research as a political wedge issue," said CGS Associate Executive Director Marcy Darnovsky. "Hopefully this will enable policy makers to move forward with much-needed oversight of emerging technologies, such as a federal ban on human reproductive cloning."

"The polarized and contentious debate about stem cell research demonstrates the wrong way to bring social values into discussions of powerful new technologies," Darnovsky continued. "Partisan political expediency doesn't belong in science. But we do need thoughtful debate and careful decisions about new human biotechnologies, based on their likely social consequences, and on our commitments to human rights, social justice, and the public interest."

The Center for Genetics and Society is a nonprofit information and public affairs organization working to encourage responsible uses and effective societal governance of the new human genetic and reproductive technologies.

Jesse Reynolds
510-625-0819 ext 308