FRC Blog

iPS Cells from ALS Patient an Advance, But Not the First Patient-Specific Stem Cells

by David Prentice

August 2, 2008

A team of scientists from Harvard University and Columbia University has reprogrammed skin cells from two elderly patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), producing iPS cells, an embryonic-type stem cell. Then from the iPS cells, they produced cells resembling motor neurons, the type of neurons that are attacked in the disease. This is the first time any embryonic-type stem cell has been created directly from a patient. The iPS cell technology, developed by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka of Japan, directly reprograms normal cells such as skin cells into an embryonic stem cell type, using the addition of 3-4 genes. No embryos, eggs, or cloning are used in the process. Yamanaka first developed the technique in mice, then transferred the same process to use with human cells. The first human iPS cells were announced in November 2007 by Yamanaka and by Dr. James Thomson. In the few months since then over 100 human iPS cell lines have been created by various labs, but this is the first published instance where iPS cells were created from a patient with a specific disease. Further work will be needed to show whether the immature neurons that were produced can mature to functional motor neurons in the lab dish, whether they are similar to the motor neurons in ALS patients, and if they can provide any clues to the development of the disease. The team hopes that they can use the iPS-derived neurons to study the disease in the lab.

The Harvard team, led by Kevin Eggan, had been attempting to create patient-specific stem cells for over two years, by trying to produce embryonic stem cells from human embryos by cloning (somatic cell nuclear transfer, SCNT) but had failed, in part because of the scarcity of human eggs (see Pining for Clones, Whining for Eggs) as well as the tremendous inefficiency of the cloning process. One of Eggan’s co-authors, Christopher Henderson, noted that if the iPS technique holds its promise in producing neurons and other cells for research, it will probably replace the cloning approach. Dr. Rudolph Jaenisch of MIT, another cloning scientist, noted that the iPS cell technology “is so much easier, [with] so many fewer restrictions and problems - ethical as well as others.” Jaenisch’s lab had also tried the cloning concept in mice and failed, but succeeded with the iPS cells. These same reasons led Prof. Ian Wilmut, cloner of Dolly the sheep, to give up on cloning in favor of Yamanaka’s technique.

The results of this study should put another nail in cloning’s coffin. Eggan still insists that he will continue with cloning research, but all the results are flowing from iPS cells. The New York Stem Cell Foundation, previously a die-hard supporter of cloning and very critical of iPS cells, wasted no time in trumpeting their “critical funding role” in the new study. One of Eggan’s major funders, the Stowers Institute, has relentlessly pushed cloning. Stowers poured $30 million into Missouri in 2006 to pass Amendment 2, a state constitutional amendment to secure the right to create cloned human embryos. Stowers CEO, William Neaves, has said that “the ultimate goal is not to create therapies with somatic cell nuclear transfer” but also that “The ultimate goal of all lines of this research is to be able, eventually, to reprogram ordinary body cells so that they could be used for therapy to replace cells that have been destroyed by injury or disease.” Sounds like iPS cells are achieving that goal. One company that rejected the iPS technique is Advanced Cell Technology (ACT). William Caldwell, CEO, had said in January 2008 that iPS “is not a substitute for what we’re doing now.” ACT was recently reported on the verge of bankruptcy. Similarly, Thomas Okarma, CEO of Geron, ignoring the facts and statements of the scientists, said that the iPS technique was “too complicated and too expensive.” (Maybe he should look at what happened to ACT.) Cloning continues to fail, iPS cells keep delivering results.

Back to some inaccuracies in most of the news reports on this latest study. What they did was show for the first time that iPS cells, an embryonic stem cell, could be made directly from patients with a disease (without harming the cell donor, and without using eggs, embryos, or cloning), and also that they could produce in the lab a specialized cell type similar to that affected in the disease. But is this the first instance of a disease-specific human cell line? No, there are lots of those, going all the way back to 1952 and the very first cultured human cell line, the HeLa cell line (the disease in that instance was cancer.)

But isn’t this the first instance of a patient-specific stem cell line? No. That honor belongs to the Australian group led by Professor Alan Mackay-Sim of Griffith University, that already made patient-specific and disease-specific stem cell lines. They isolated adult stem cells from the nasal tissue of patients, including Parkinson’s patients. AND they turned those stem cell lines into the type of tissue affected in the patient,. AND they have already gone beyond the iPS result; they used their adult stem cell lines in an animal model of Parkinson’s disease. AND the adult stem cells successfully treated the disease in the animals. Without tumor formation.

So the current iPS cell result is a nice advance, but it’s not the first evidence of patient-specific or disease-specific stem cells, and certainly not the best.

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Pining for Clones, Whining for Eggs

by David Prentice

August 2, 2008

Would-be cloners continue to complain that they cannot get enough human eggs for their experiments to create human clones. AP reporter Marcus Wohlsen reports that scientists and biotech entrepreneurs are pushing for payments to women who donate eggs for research.

The push has been especially strong in California and Massachusetts, where payments to egg donors for research are prohibited, and where several research groups continue to push for human clones. Wohlsen accurately lays out the experimental science as well as the controversy. As the article notes, “The conflict centers on an effort to create stem cells from embryos that are exact clones of adults.” Cloning (technically termed somatic cell nuclear transfer, SCNT) involves transferring the nucleus of a body cell such as a skin cell (a “somatic” cell) into an egg that has had its own nucleus/chromosomes removed. The result is creation of an embryo.

But one of the problems with cloning is that it is a famously inefficient technique. This means that a huge number of eggs are required to create just a few embryos. Hence the problem with human cloning—where to get all of the human eggs? As Wohlsen notes, “One of the problems is that there is a significant risk to the health of a woman who donates eggs.” High doses of hormones are used to “hyperstimulate” a woman’s ovaries, to produce not 1 or 2, but 10, 20, or 30 eggs at a time. And the hyperstimulation can lead to serious consequences for the women.

As Wohlsen says, “Even under normal doses, drugs used to coax eggs for use by fertilization clinics can occasionally lead to serious complications caused by excessive stimulation of the ovaries. In rare instances, the condition can be fatal.”

Stanford professors Magnus and Cho give these figures:

Between 0.3 and 5% or up to 10% of women who undergo ovarian stimulation to procure oocytes experience severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can cause pain, and occasionally leads to hospitalization, renal failure, potential future infertility, and even death.”

For a sample of what can go wrong, see the story of Calla Papademas; for more info see the website of Hands Off Our Ovaries, a feminist group opposed to risking women’s health for risky experiments.

In their June 2005 article in Science, Magnus and Cho also address the hype associated with cloning and potential cures, what they term the “therapeutic misconception”:

…researchers must make every effort to communicate to these volunteers that it is extremely unlikely that their contributions will directly benefit themselves or their loved ones. Also, it is nearly certain that the clinical benefits of the research are years or maybe decades away. This is a message that desperate families and patients will not want to hear.”

Perhaps coincidentally, the Magnus and Cho article appeared in the same issue of Science as one of the fraudulent human cloning papers of Woo-Suk Hwang, where he claimed he had cloned patients to create “patient-specific embryonic stem cells”.

Still the whining continues that many more eggs are needed for cloning. Kevin Eggan at Harvard has complained loudly that two years and $100,000 in advertising brought in a total of only one egg donor. Cloning proponents also claim that the lack of eggs is “preventing medical breakthroughs”. One of their claims is that cloning will create embryonic stem cells that will match the patient who has been cloned, the so-called “patient-specific stem cells”.

Actually two simpler, more straightforward, and cheaper ways to get patient-specific stem cells have already been proven. Interestingly, one result was just announced by… Kevin Eggan of Harvard, making induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from the skin of patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). The other way has been published by an Australian team, using nasal adult stem cells from patients.

One might wonder, then, why the continued angst about getting eggs and human cloning. One answer may be economic. The only team to publish verified cloning of a human embryo is the company Stemagen, in January 2008. No stem cells were obtained at all, but they are supposedly continuing to try cloning in the hopes that they can market the cells from cloned embryos, or maybe the embryos themselves. Part of their success apparently resulted from getting fresh human eggs direct from the fertility clinic. Conveniently, one of the Stemagen cloners, Wood, runs the Reproductive Sciences Center in San Diego, the in-vitro fertilization clinic that obtains the eggs.

This brings up the question of conflict of interest for those harvesting the eggs, torn between caring for the health of the women donating eggs vs. the incentive to retrieve as many eggs as possible. According to a recent story, more women are donating eggs to fertility clinics, but often to help their financial situation. Supporters of restrictions on payments for egg harvesting for research note that the restrictions are necessary to avoid creating a market for human eggs that encourages women to risk their health for speculative science. Whether the push for egg payments in California is related to creating a market for eggs to allow cloning, and relationships between Stemagen and Alan Trounson, the President of California’s stem cell quango, was recently examined by the California Stem Cell Report. Questions about Trounson have surfaced before, especially in relation to his attempted rat-trick with Australian MP’s during their embryo research debate in 2002.

Given the easier, cheaper, and much more successful alternatives, and the significant ethical problems related to getting human eggs, it would seem the idea of SCNT cloning should be quickly dropped.

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No Cloning Around with Humans for Hwang

by David Prentice

July 31, 2008

In his dogged determination to continue cloning, Woo-Suk Hwang had requested that he be allowed to resume human cloning work. But now South Korea’s National Committee on Bioethics has denied Hwang’s request to work with human eggs and embryos. Hwang is still on trial for fraud, embezzlement, ethical breaches and other charges stemming from his human cloning fraud. As part of the fallout, South Korea’s parliament recently tightened its bioethics laws somewhat, prohibiting cross-species cloning to form animal-human hybrid embryos (using animal eggs and human nuclei.) While Hwang awaits the verdict on his charges, he has occupied himself with animal cloning, such as cloning dogs, including Booger. No word yet on when the cloned mammoth will be ready.

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What About Gold and Myrrh?

by David Prentice

July 31, 2008

Scientists have found that an enriched extract of Indian Frankincense can reduce the symptoms of osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis. The results of the study are published in the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy (open access). Scientists at the University of California-Davis did a trial with 70 patients and found that those treated with the frankincense extract (from the herb Boswellia) showed significant improvement in as little as 7 days.

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We Can’t Pay For Your Chemo, But Here Is Some Nice Hemlock For You”

by Tom McClusky

July 30, 2008

Oregon, the first state in the country to allow physician-assisted suicide, has come up with an ethical conundrum that I hope Washington state is paying attention to as they debate following in Oregon’s grim footsteps. Apparently the Oregon Health Plan has informed a woman fighting lung cancer that they will not pay for her treatments, but “if she chose” they WILL pay for her “doctor-assisted suicide.”

As we have seen in the Netherlands, allowing so called physicians to kill their patients is a very slippery slope. As described by Dr. Herbert Hendin, a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: “Over the past two decades, the Netherlands has moved from assisted suicide to euthanasia, from euthanasia for the terminally ill to euthanasia for the chronically ill, from euthanasia for physical illness to euthanasia for psychological distress and from voluntary euthanasia to non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia.”

Is this really the value we put on human life?

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Stem Cell Doping for Olympics?

by David Prentice

July 30, 2008

You knew it was coming. Steroids, human growth hormone, Epo. Now comes the story of a potential stem cell doping scandal brewing in China right before the Olympics. A German documentary crew used a hidden camera to film a reporter, posing as a swimming coach, being offered a performance-enhancing stem cell treatment by a Chinese doctor. The price: a mere $24,000. The doctor recommended several injections, and noted that “We have no experience with athletes here, but the treatment is safe and we can help you.” He claimed that the injected stem cells could strengthen lung function, as well as go to other organs. No mention of what type of stem cells were going to be used, or exactly how they were supposed to help the athletes. Gene doping experts were shocked when they saw the documentary, but also expressed doubts whether the treatment described by the doctor would enhance performance. One would also expect that it would be easy to detect the use of donor stem cells simply by looking for DNA patterns in the blood or tissue samples that were different from the athlete’s DNA. But still, looks like here is another example of abuse about which authorities will have to be on guard.

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Wait, there are two Sallies?

by Michael Fragoso

July 30, 2008

Where to begin with this story… A nurse in Birmingham, England gave an abortifacient drug to the wrong woman. It seems that in the interests of confidentiality, they call women from the waiting room by their first names-whereupon the nurse is to verify the identity. It just so happens that a woman who wanted a consultation and a woman who wanted an abortion shared the same first name. Guess which one got the abortion-confidentially, of course.

Sadly this is not unheard of in Europe. A 2004 case of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Vo v. France, dealt with precisely the same issue. In the case at hand Vo, a Vietnamese immigrant, was mistaken for another woman while at the hospital for prenatal care, and mistakenly given an abortion. She sued under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“Everyone’s right to life shall be protected.”) to vindicate the lost right of her child. Of course the ECHR was about to do no such thing.

Both cases reflect the awful truth about abortion in our society: it’s not about choice at all. The nurse in Birmingham violated the mother’s freedom of choice by giving her an undesired abortion, and she gets to keep her nursing job with a “caution” on her permanent record. Vo’s freedom of choice was violated and the ECHR refused to acknowledge the rights of the child she grieved. But what’s a mother’s choice to have a child next to the goal of legalized abortion? After all, the pro-aborts say, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

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Census: 6.4 Million Cohabitating Couples…

by JP Duffy

July 29, 2008

Census data released on Monday show that cohabitating couples now total 6.4 million - almost 10 percent of all couples, married and unmarried. Also released on Monday, a USA Today/Gallup Poll which finds that 49% of Americans believe that “living together makes divorce less likely” compared to 31% who said living together “makes divorce more likely.”

These disturbing numbers point to broad social acceptance of cohabitation despite studies showing that the mere act of cohabiting before marriage increases a couple’s chance of divorcing by 50 percent

It’s obvious that much work remains to be done to restore the place of marriage in our society. Marriage Savers is one organization that is leading the way to bring down cohabitation rates in many U.S. cities. Mike and Harriet McManus are Co-founders of Marriage Savers and recently published Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers. Earlier this year, they gave a lecture at FRC to discuss their new book and ways in which the church can help cohabitating couples. I highly recommend watching the webcast of the lecture.

This posted authored by JP Duffy, Media Director for FRC.

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Failing to Disclose

by Tom McClusky

July 29, 2008

Within weeks of each other a newspaper in California (embroiled in a fight over same-sex “marriage”) and a newspaper in Massachusetts (which has had same-sex “marriage” on the books for a few years now but currently are set to overturn the law that prohibits out of state people coming to Massachusetts to get married) have printed articles bemoaning the fact that the U.S. Census won’t count any of the same-sex “marriages” in the census because of that pesky mean old Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Coincidence? Not exactly. Consider the source for both stories, Gary J. Gates, Senior Research Fellow at UCLA Law School. According to his official bio at the school Mr. Gates is the “co-author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas and is widely acknowledged as the nation’s leading expert on the demography and geography of the gay and lesbian population.” The bio goes on to explain “Dr. Gates’ position at the Williams Institute was made possible by a generous grant from the Gill Foundation.”

For those unfamiliar with the Gill Foundation it is run by Tim Gill, a multibillionaire software mogul who has used his billions to defeat pro-traditional marriage candidates and legislators on the state and national level. Tim Gill and a network of his political Thumbnail image for Tim Gill.jpgallies in 2006 funded 38 percent of the opposition to same-sex marriage bans across the country. Tim Gill and his cabal of other pro-homosexual agenda millionaires targets a candidate opposed to the homosexual agenda and sends donations to opposition candidate in the last two months of the election, thus avoiding any nasty pre-election exposure.

In 2000 Tim Gill’s political donations totaled $300,000, in 2002 that increased to $800,000. In 2004 he upped that to $5 million and finally in the 2006 election cycle, Tim Gill gave $15 million to 111 state candidates in 16 states. His candidates won more than 70 percent of the time. This giving was associated with five state houses changing from Republican to Democrat. These changes took place in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania House went Democrat by only one member. The 2006 election swing for the Democrats caused at least three results for which Gill must have hoped. In 2007, Iowa passed strong anti-discrimination protection for homosexuals, killed a marriage amendment and passed a pro-cloning embryonic stem cell bill. Additionally, Oregon passed anti-discrimination protections and created a domestic partner system.

The two newspapers do not discuss Mr. Gates funding or background, giving the impression he is merely an observer. Clearly this not so subtle attack on census data is coordinated to go after and repeal the highly popular 1996 DOMA, an ultimate goal of many Democrats currently in Congress.

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