Yamanaka and iPSCs: A reply to some skeptical friends in the pro-life community

E. Christian Brugger
October 25, 2012
(c) Culture of Life Foundation 2012
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

In 2006/7 Japanese cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka published important research showing that specialized adult cells such as skin cells could be "reprogrammed" to become pluripotent stem cells. Yamanaka called the reprogrammed cells "induced pluripotent stem cells" (or iPSCs) and the type of research "cell reprogramming".

He neither created nor experimented upon human embryos in his research. But to make reagents for reprogramming the somatic cells, he apparently did use cells from a cultured cell line created in 1977 and originally derived from the tissue of a child who was aborted earlier in the 1970s (called "HEK cells," Human Embryonic Kidney cells). If I understand the process correctly, the genes used to reprogram the somatic cells were delivered into the cells using viruses (called lentiviral vectors). These viral delivery systems were created using HEK cells.

Pro-life groups such as Children of God (COG) for Life have drawn attention to this little known fact and in doing so have provided the pro-life community an important service.

Unfortunately, some of these groups are claiming that because Yamanaka used 'tainted' cells in his research, the production of iPSCs by cell reprogramming is intrinsically evil.

They are incorrect. The production of iPSCs does not require the use of HEK cells, and can be - and is being - done successfully without them. If the research is carried out without using 'tainted' cells, then the procedure itself need pose no moral problems.

They also argue that because Yamanaka used tainted cells, his research, for which he received the 2012 Nobel Prize, deserves a blanket condemnation. For two reasons, I disagree.

First, a blanket condemnation fails to make distinctions between what is praiseworthy and what might deserve criticism. With respect to the latter, if Yamanaka knew the immoral origin of the HEK cells, had reasonable alternatives available to him, and yet still used the tainted cells, then (to that extent) I think he did wrong.

His wrongdoing certainly would not be the wrong of killing; nor would it be wrongful cooperation in killing, since using cells from the cultured line 30 years later did not facilitate the original evildoing in any way. Moreover, using HEK cells in research is unlikely to cause scandal in the formal sense (i.e., be a cause of leading others into grave sin), since HEK is so widely used in the scientific community that it barely raises an eyebrow.

Its wrongness would lie in the failure of the duty we all share to testify to the value of human life, in this case by refusing to use products created by exploiting life: a failure of duty to bear witness to the truth. To constitute a moral failure, however, Yamanaka would have had to know the origins of the cells, have reasonable alternatives available, and not select them. I don't know if these conditions prevailed.

Because of Jesus' perspicuous self-sacrificing witness to truth, Christians, called to be Christ in the world, have an especially strong duty to bear witness. I don't know if Yamanaka is a Christian. If he is, then he shares that stronger duty. If not, he still has a duty to the truth. But we know that even Christians, including Christian leaders, sometimes fail to bear rightful witness. Blanket condemnations of their lives or apostolates would be simplistic and could be wrongful. Why? Because one's life is a complex matrix of actions, some of which may, and others of which may not, bear perspicuous witness.

If in one respect his research fails to measure up to ethical standards, in another, the Japanese researcher has been an extraordinary witness to the truth of the sanctity of human life. As one of the leading adult stem cell researchers in the world, he dedicated years of his life to finding a way of deriving pluripotent stem cells without killing embryos. His research has transformed a field, which once was almost monolithically committed to embryo destructive research. At a time when Obama was about occupy the Oval Office and running on a platform of overturning the Bush stem cell policy, just twelve months earlier (Nov. 2007) Yamanaka published this almost incredible news: "a new way to make pluripotent - embryonic like - stem cells without exploiting embryos." I don't think there's any doubt that because of his accomplishments, many, many less embryonic people are being killed today in research than otherwise would be. And this was precisely part of Yamanaka's motives, to stop embryo destructive research. Whatever in his research deserves criticism, this deserves praise.

Second, modern secular science is a morally mixed bag. The wheat and weeds are mixed together in a giant field we call the scientific endeavor. One of the points of genius of the empirical method is its limitless and unfolding capacity for generating new and deeper knowledge by building on the systematic accomplishments of earlier research. If earlier research, however, entails immoral activity, the products and knowledge gained by it will in some way be tainted by the immorality.

In the field of stem cell research, including morally licit adult stem cell research, no one can claim that the knowledge they rely upon or the products they use are "pure" and unrelated to prior research that has been illicitly obtained.

So how should we assess scientific accomplishments, such as those of Yamanaka, that include morally questionable elements? We condemn gross immorality when we find it; and so we condemn the original killing of the baby in the 1970s, which Yamanaka had nothing to do with. We criticize the scientific exploitation of the baby's mortal remains. We deplore the indifference of some scientists to the original killing. And we admonish researchers in the present to bear witness to the truth by refusing to use products derived from the baby's tissues.

If they use them out of non-culpable ignorance, then they do no more wrong than did children who innocently drank Pepsi products that utilized flavor chemicals developed in research using HEK cells.

If they use them with full knowledge, but don't have reasonable alternatives, then we assess two things: 1) whether the use is likely to cause scandal, and 2) if the research is serious enough to warrant tolerating (but not intending) other harms that might arise from the use (e.g., legitimizing in people's minds the original illicit act). If there is proportionately grave reason and if using the products is unlikely to cause scandal, then we may conclude the researchers are justified in using them.

If reasonable alternatives are readily available, and informed researchers don't use them, then we are warranted in concluding that they fail in their duty to witness to the truth by refusing to use the alternatives.

But we also praise the good they do, in Yamanaka's case, in effectively - and by intent - dealing a lethal blow to one of the most immoral forms of scientific research in modern history.