The NECN headline this week ‘Harvard scientists make huge stem cell discovery’, is one of over 1,400 in the last few days announcing the latest development in the race to produce patient specific stem cells (pictured) without using human embryos. Ethical treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis are now one tantalising step closer.
But interestingly you will not read about it (yet) in any British newspaper or on any British online news outlet.
The tendency of the British media to sensationalise ‘advances’ in embryo stem cell research whilst ignoring or underplaying more promising ethical research using adult and umbilical stem cells is long-lived.
Ten years ago, after the 1999 Donaldson Report recommended allowing scientists to clone human embryos for stem cell research using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), CMF branded the research 'unethical and unnecessary' in a Triple Helix editorial and sounded a strong note of caution. We argued that the enthusiasm for this new technology was 'based more on political expediency than wise reflection' and warned that 'the prospect of revolutionary new treatments (would) undoubtedly entice investors to move funds away from other less glamorous, but potentially more promising avenues of research'.
Since 2000 we have witnessed the glorious failure of scientists in Britain and elsewhere to produce patient-specific stem cells from cloned human embryos. Subsequently, the limited availability and dangers of harvesting human eggs for research fuelled the shift to using cytoplasmic animal-human hybrids ('cybrids'). This was supported by a massive propaganda campaign in 2007-8 involving scientists, patient groups, and politicians, and led by Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris with the willing co-operation of Times Science Correspondent Mark Henderson.
As a result, in an impassioned Observer article in May 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed animal-human hybrids as 'a profound opportunity to save and transform millions of lives' and expressed his commitment to this research as 'an inherently moral endeavour that can save and improve the lives of thousands and over time millions of people'. The measure was supported in a heavily whipped vote as part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, now the HFE Act.
Ironically, before the new Act had even come into force, the news broke that stem cells from animal-human hybrids were seen as a poor investment and almost certainly wouldn't work. In January 2009, the two leading UK researchers granted licences for the work, Stephen Minger of Kings College London and Lyle Armstrong at Newcastle University Centre for Life, were denied funding by the Medical Research Council.
The British Medical Journal reported that the grant applications had been turned down because the reviewers considered that they were not competitive in the face of the lack of overall funding for medical research in the United Kingdom.
Minger himself admitted that he believed the distribution of research funding should be competitive, based on assessment of scientific value and cost, and noted that induced pluripotent stem cells are cheaper to set up than human-animal hybrid stem cell research. No one it seemed wanted to invest money in the new research, given the low likelihood of it ever yielding results and the emergence of cheaper ethical alternatives.
Less than three weeks later, in a landmark paper in Cloning and Stem Cells, Robert Lanza and colleagues from Advanced Cell Technology, Massachusetts, demonstrated that animal oocytes lack the capacity to fully reprogramme and activate adult human cells, and specifically the pluripotency-associated genes needed for stem cell production. The hybrid embryos from mouse, cow and rabbit eggs looked microscopically normal but were genetically flawed. Journal Editor Sir Ian Wilmut, the British cloning pioneer involved in the 1996 creation of Dolly the sheep, concluded that 'production of patient-specific stem cells by this means would (now) be impracticable'.
Wilmut had himself already abandoned embryonic stem cell research, in favour of iPS, induced pluripotent stem cells (produced ethically by dedifferentiating somatic cells to produce embryonic-like stem cells). Yamanaka and Thomson's seminal work in this area in late 2007 was later dubbed the scientific breakthrough of the year by the magazine Science.
Some scientists had expressed concern that Yamanaka had used virus vectors to transfer the genes which would reprogramme the somatic cells. But on 1 March 2009, in a later twist, a UK and Canadian team succeeded in turning somatic cells into embryonic-like stem cells, without using viruses.
But now, in a further major advance this week, American scientists have gone a step further. Derrick Rossi and colleagues of Children's Hospital Boston and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have reported in a paper published online by the journal Cell Stem Cell that they have produced induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) from skin cells using modified forms of messenger RNA. The new technique appears to be one hundred times more efficient than that initially pioneered by Yamanaka.
Other experts have praised the work. Marius Wernig, an iPS researcher at Stanford University called the process ‘highly efficient’ and added that if the initial promise is borne out this ‘would be the first practical method for generating iPS cells that could be used for transplant therapies’. He added, ‘If it turns out to be a very efficient way of generating iPS cells without any genetic modification, then it would be a big advance’.
Kathrin Plath of the University of California, Los Angeles, called the work ‘very impressive’ and said it appears to show the best approach so far for making such cells for transplant tissue.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, there are currently over 1,400 articles on the web about this new breakthrough but not one I can find in a British newspaper. Instead the British press has been highlighting the story of a doctor struck off by the GMC for the unethical use of bogus stem cell treatments.
I suspect that when this new advance is finally reported it will be underplayed and made without any reference to Britain’s ten years of blind alley investment in embryonic stem cell research.
Perhaps the last word belongs to leading US stem cell scientist James Sherley: 'For those trained in the science, this is not news, but instead a completed fate that was known from the beginning' – a timely reminder that in good science the end does not justify the means (Romans 3:8).