Since induced pluripotent stem cells offer "patient-specific pluripotent stem cells without creating and destroying a cloned embryo," Taylor said, they offer a "huge improvement over destroying" human embryos for stem cell research.
However, norms surrounding the way scientists induce a pluripotent state introduce moral concerns to induced pluripotent stem cell research.
In order to induce a pluripotent state in adult cells, two things must typically happen: genetic factors must be introduced into the cell, and the factors must be activated. However, the current standard processes to achieve both of these steps involve the use and destruction of human embryos.
Dr. Mahendra Rao, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, explained to CNA that "the Yamanaka protocol is routine" in the medical community.
This process, created by Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka, was used as a means of limiting the creation and destruction of embryos for research. His technique calls for the growth of factors in a human cell line, Hek293, and the activation of those factors by a virus in order to induce a pluripotent state. This process will be used in the Japanese human trials.
However, the Hek293 cell line was begun with tissue taken from the kidney of a human person who was aborted in the Netherlands during the early 1970s.
"The fact that a cell line of illicit origin was used as a tool in this technique does morally taint the research," Taylor explained.
She added that this cell line is "ubiquitous in labs all over the world," and that it and other "cell lines derived from abortions that occurred decades ago are common tools in biotechnology." Taylor added that it is so common, that she was "sure many researchers have no idea where these cell lines originated or that they are morally tainted."
The use of this cell line and other research derived from aborted subjects has been addressed by Vatican theologians. In its 2005 "Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses," the Pontifical Academy for Life noted that even though the abortions occurred over 40 years ago, "they do not cease to pose ethical problems."
They concluded that "vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis" if it is a life-threatening disease and there are no alternative vaccines.
Otherwise, Catholics and others who wish to respect life at all stages ought to abstain from their use, as well as further research using that technique.
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The Pontifical Academy for Life emphasized, "there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically," and encouraged the creation and investigation of morally sound research alternatives.
In the years since the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells, there has been the creation of morally sound research alternatives, and new techniques that do not depend upon the destruction of embryos are in development.
The genetic factors used in the Yamanaka process can be cultured in "other cell lines, that were obtained morally," Taylor clarified.
Brendan Foht, assistant editor of the bioethics journal The New Atlantis, explained to CNA that "there are other ways of getting those genes expressed and reprogrammed" that avoid the use of genetic factors and proteins altogether.
He noted that research has been done on moving past the Yamanaka process because of the virus' tendency to mutate cells during the activation of the genetic factors, thus potentially creating cancers.
In 2008 Yamanaka discovered that pluripotent stem cells could be created through the introduction of plasmids – a ring of genetic material – into an adult cell. These rings of genetic code are easily grown in bacterial cells, and would not rely upon embryo destruction at all.