Monday, November 26, 2007

Skin Cells and Ethics

This from the Times of India

"Using deactivated viruses, the scientists managed to transport four key genes into the nucleus of the skin cells which reprogrammed them into cells virtually identical to embryonic stem cells.......Of far greater import, though, is the fact that till today the only way stem cells could be obtained was from embryos which had to be destroyed while they were harvested. The new discovery neatly sidesteps this hassle area and deftly diffuses the huge political firestorm generated over the morality of stem cell research. The method avoids the use of human reproductive materials altogether - no egg, no embryo and no cloning technique at all".

The editorial describes a technique which used a retrovirus to insert four genes into the genome of an adult skin cell which induces the skin cell to be reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells. As far as the researchers could tell the reprogrammed skin cell behaves just like an embryonic stem cell potentially capable of diversifying into different specialized cell types. It then comes to the conclusion that this discovery means a freedom from using embryonic stem cells for research.

TOI has come to a somewhat hasty conclusion. The four genes that the researchers used to reprogram the skin cell genome were first identified through research on embryonic stem cells. The implication is that research on any novel methods to induce adult cells into becoming pluripotent and on developing into specialized cells without developmental defects or the risk of inducing diseases like cancer will rely on a deeper understanding of how embryonic stem cells work naturally. We don't understand this process completely yet and so there is no getting away from embryonic stem cell research at least for the near future.

TOI then claims

"But at least as far as ethical bans and restrictive government funding are concerned, they've been blown away".

Which government's views is TOI talking about? India already funds embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. Unlike the United States, destruction of embryos for research purposes has not posed any major ethical dilemmas and therapeutic cloning is widely supported by civil society. TOI's concerns don't reflect those of Indian society at large.


  1. The ethical dilemma in the US is mostly because the overtly religious politicians and other influential Christians believe that the "soul" of the child (whatever it may mean) is formed at the moment of conception, and therefore it's against their religious beliefs to "kill" the embryo.

    It's not so much of a real debate, than a superstitious belief in souls and other such unscientific nonsense.

  2. Hi Suvrat,

    You have rightly questioned "Which government's views is TOI talking about?" And this is apparently appearing in the editorial. This is the real difficulty today with most Indian newspapers. Unwittingly they betray their US centric bias and observant folks like you detect it straightaway. Media and pundits tend to hold US an unmitigated success, which it is not, and want us to ape it. Health care system there is a disaster, whereas I am told Canada has a far more inclusive and affordable health care though that too is a capitalist economy.

    While I recognize that Government sway on economy should be reduced, I find difficulty in agreeing with 'free-market-walahs', who want government to vacate just about everything into private hands.

    Keet it going.