A breakthrough in ethical science has been rewarded with a 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine. British scientist Sir John Gurdon of Cambridge University and Japanese medical doctor-scientist Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University were awarded the honor this week, for developing an ethical technology for deriving stem cells from matured cells.
In this highly controversial field, an ethical war has raged for years over the use of aborted fetuses to collect stem cells. Many scientists were of the opinion that within a prescribed number of days, it is acceptable to abort a fetus as it is only a lump of flesh.
However, the Catholic Church rejects that stance, saying that a fetus is a human being and by destroying it, the scientists are ending a life. Former U.S. president George W. Bush shared that view; he cut federal funding for research with aborted stem cells.
The Church considers a human as born from the moment a sperm and an ovum fuse together to form a fetus. From one cell, the fetus multiplies in geometrical progression. A few weeks later the cells become the heart, brain, bone, nerves, blood of a person.
In these early growth stages, any cell has the capacity to become any organ or tissue in the body. Such cells are known as pluri-potential, which means they have multiple capacities.
These pluri-potential cells have therapeutic qualities that can be described as amazing. When introduced into the brain of a person affected by Parkinson’s disease, for instance, the cells seem to cure them. They also help repair diseased heart muscles and redevelop the spinal cord connectivity of a paralyzed person, helping them to walk.
But the major sticking point comes when we discuss how to get those precious cells. Destroying an embryo to harvest them is clearly unethical, since it effectively entails killing a person.
Enter Gurdon and Yamanaka. In a series of groundbreaking discoveries several years apart, both of them used different techniques to reverse the programs in mature cells so that pluri-potential stem cells can be derived from them. So researchers can test the immense therapeutic possibilities without having to resort to collecting them from fetuses.
When he was a schoolboy at Eton, a teacher told Gurdon that though he wanted to become a scientist, it was a waste of time to teach him because he could not grasp simple biological facts. Now he is the director of the world renowned Gurdon Institute, Cambridge, which he founded.
In 1962, Gurdon replaced the nucleus of a frog’s egg cell with the nucleus of a mature cell from the intestine of a tadpole. The egg developed into a fully functional tadpole, and subsequent repetition of the experiment yielded adult frogs. Thus, Gurdon proved that mature cells could be re-programmed to become stem cells. His peers at the time regarded his work with a mixture of amusement and disbelief.
Yamanaka, who was born in 1962, the year Gurdon received his doctorate, later developed a similar technology. He and his team found a way to switch mature cells into reverse, to become pluri-potent cells or immature cells. It was believed until then that such a process was impossible.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Europe and the Anscombe Bioethics Centre hailed the two men’s Nobel Prize-winning work as an “achievement of great ethical significance. Without destroying human embryos, it is now possible to utilize the immense possibilities of therapeutic stem cell intervention.”
So a Nobel Prize has been awarded to ethical, life enhancing science, which is exceptional and praiseworthy.
Carmelite of Mary Immaculate Father Mathew Chandrankunnel is professor of Philosophy of Science at Dharmaram College and director of the Science and Technology, Laity Commission, Syro Malabar Church.
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