The Michigan Catholic Conference on Monday welcomed reports that stem cell researchers have discovered another method to advance science without intentionally destroying human embryos. Praising research that avoids “ethical and moral landmines,” the Conference called on state legislators to support legislation promoting it.
On Monday, the science journal Nature reported that specialized human cells have been transformed into a state similar to that of embryonic stem cells without using viruses.
Embryonic stem cells are totipotent, capable of generating all of the body’s specialized cells. Researchers have speculated that embryonic stem cell research could develop significant medical advances, but the research relies on the destruction of human embryos and human cloning.
Alternative methods for generating stem cells are being developed.
Kyoto University researcher Shinya Yamanaka and his colleagues have reprogrammed mouse skin cells into an embryonic-like state by infecting them with a virus containing four genetic factors. The modified cells are known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells.
However, Nature reports, viruses integrate unpredictably into the cells’ genome.
A new iPS production method that does not use viruses has been developed by stem cell researchers led by Andreas Nagy of the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and Keisuke Kaji, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh.
The researchers inserted genes encoding Yamanaka’s genetic factors into a piece of DNA called a cassette. The cassette contained a “jumping gene” known as piggyBAC, discovered by a University of Notre Dame scientist.
The researchers showed the cassette could be inserted into mouse DNA and human skin cells and could reprogram the cells to enter an embryonic-like state.
The new method used an enzyme called transposase to remove the cassette from the mouse cells.
However, some scientists say the technique is not a major advance over methods which use viruses until the cassette can be removed from human cells.
According to Nature, Nagy is confident he will be able to apply the technique to human cells.
Commenting on the development in a Monday statement, Michigan Catholic Conference Vice President for Public Policy Paul Long said the Conference welcomes “yet another scientific advancement that allows researchers to pursue ethical and proven stem cell research” without destroying human embryos.
“It is the hope of the Conference that state lawmakers will pursue legislation that enables non-embryo destructive stem cell research to flourish in Michigan, such as measures introduced last year that promote Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Research.”
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat and self-professed Catholic, has been criticized for supporting research that kills human embryos.
In October 2008, Bishop of Lansing Earl Boyea rebuked the governor’s endorsement of a ballot measure intended to overturn restrictions on embryonic stem cell research.
“While the Catholic Church strongly supports legitimate forms of stem cell research and all other proper forms of scientific inquiry, the Church also teaches that is it is always immoral to destroy a human embryo,” he said.