Let's Be Clear About the Science and Ethics of iPS Cell Research and Its Reproductive Possibilities

Dianne N. Irving
Copyright October 23, 2012
Reproduced with Permission

A great deal of "praise" (even a Nobel Prize) has been heaped on the discovery and use of iPS cell research lately -- even by prolifers (supposedly because it obviates the need for destroying living human embryos in research). But it has been known in research circles for a long time that iPS cells can in turn be used to reproduce new living human embryos for both research and reproductive purposes -- not to mention the plethora of scientific and other ethical problems inherent in iPS research that I and even researchers "pro" iPS research have admitted.

About a year ago I sent out a new article I had written and published on LifeIsssues.net that in part laid out these problematic details concerning iPS cells. Given -- it was a long article -- 44 pages, including 111 scientific references. And given -- it was almost all "science". But the article did go into great detail in order to point out those concerns, as well as reference the actual research studies that document it. And the backdrop I used was actually a recent UNESCO International Bioethics Committee report that expressed these and even other concerns (such as illegal trafficking in eggs, sperms and embryos). My article addressed only three of the 6 types of research that they were concerned about. There are obviously more "ethical" concerns about the use of iPS cells than simply -- and I mean simply -- that they are not derived by killing living human embryos.

FYI, I have copied below just the first part of that 44-page article covering two of the techniques discussed in the UNESCO report because they involve iPS cells. Please see the full article for more details. But at least the reader can discover that iPS cells are not the "prolife panacea" they have been and continue to be touted to be, but rather that their use is full of both serious scientific and ethical problems per se and have long been eyed for reproducing new living human embryos for both destructive research and profoundly unethical reproductive purposes. Both of those objectives kill living innocent human embryos as well. Even the LGBT community has been delighted with the most recent studies documenting that both eggs and sperms can be produced using iPS cells and those artificially produced gametes have been used to produce new living organisms.

Also FYI, here are three earlier articles of mine in which I address the original ethical and scientific concerns with iPS cell research:

[Note: the following short excerpt on iPS cells is copied from the first section of my longer article: "Any Human Cell - iPS, Direct Programmed, Embryonic, Fetal or Adult - Can Be Genetically Engineered to Asexually Reproduce New Human Embryos for Purposes of Reproduction ('Infertility')" (November 2011), at: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_194cellasexuallyreproduce1.html. -- DNI]


Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D.
Copyright November 2011

[Note: This article is copyrighted and thus must be acknowledged when using its original ideas and resources or quoting from it.]

"It is quite possible that the advances in human biology in the remainder of the twentieth century will be remembered as the most significant scientific achievement of the animal species known as Homo sapiens. But in order to become a part of medical history, parahuman reproduction and human genetic engineering must circumvent the recalcitrance of an antiquated culture. ... A philosophy of reason will define a human being as one which demonstrates self-awareness volition and rationality. Thus it should be recognized that not all men are human. ... A clear definition of humanity in terms of mental acuity, rather than physical appearance, should be encouraged. ("Futurist and Transhumanist", Winston L. Duke, "The new biology", in Reason Magazine, "Parahuman Reproduction, Android Cloning, The New Biology, Artificial Synthesis, Genetic Engineering, Brain Transfers", August 1972)1

Any Human Cell - iPS, Direct Programmed, Embryonic, Fetal or Adult - Can Be Genetically Engineered to Asexually Reproduce New Human Embryos for Purposes of Reproduction ("Infertility")

I. Introduction:

Winston Duke wrote those prescient words back in 1972. He was an early California engineer, libertarian, transhumanist and futurist (all international organizations), all seeking "immortality" of one sort or another, and it is well worth reading his article, if only for historical reasons. It explains in good measure "how we got here". This article will address simply "where we are" today.

The use of various types of stem cells for research purposes to make disease "models" in the lab for regenerative medicine and for "therapies" to cure sick patients for diseases is constantly in the news. But what is not getting such wide reporting is the use of pluripotent stem cells (as well as many other types of cells and genetic engineering techniques) for reproductive purposes. It does not seem to be fully realized or evaluated that what can be done for purposes of "therapies" and "research" can also be done for purposes of "reproduction".

A recent UNESCO draft document, although rather vague and deficient in itself, probably does the best job of at least initially identifying and describing some of these new reproductive technologies in relatively simple form, with a few generalized helpful sketches online. As stated up front in that document, the UNESCO International Bioethics Committee (IBC), at least, is aware of various genetic engineering techniques that are already being used for reproductive purposes and sees a need to address their concerns:

"On the basis of reflection and debate on human cloning" held in 2008‐2009, UNESCO's International BIOETHICS Committee met again this past May to June, 2011, to 'explore whether there is any scientific, social or political change that would justify a new initiative [regarding human cloning] at the international level'".2

The IBC identified six such "concerns" in their current draft document:3

Note especially their concerns about "the terminology used in the bioethical debates", that it "is misleading and does not adequately describe the technical procedures used (or potentially to be used) today. ... An in-depth analysis aiming at re-defining this terminology according to the new developments in human embryo research would be highly beneficial." It is precisely the redefining and deconstruction of the accurate science involved that has gone on for decades now that is the subject of the second part of this article. Will UNESCO continue such scientific deconstruction when they redefine the relevant scientific terminology "according to the new developments in human embryo research", or will they finally acknowledge the accurate scientific facts of human embryology? Will the real human embryo, who is a real living human being, disappear further into even more abstract and false definitions such as "pre-embryo", "fertilized egg", "just a bunch of cells", etc.? It is also of concern that laws, regulations and "guidelines" involving only governmental or "public" money might be a step forward - assuming the accurate scientific terms are used -- but obviously those efforts do not affect the use of private funds and facilities for the same research experiments, as will be noted later.

The UNESCO document then proceeds to list some of the kinds of reproductive cloning research techniques already available that they are particularly concerned about. Note that "reproductive cloning" implies implanting an >embryo derived by these following genetic engineering techniques into a woman's uterus. None of these human embryos are derived sexually by the process of fertilization, but rather asexually (without the fusion of sperm and oocytes). The techniques that UNESCO lists includes one such technique that is more familiar, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) (either by "fusion" of an enucleated egg and a somatic cell, or by "direct injection" of a nucleus into an enucleated egg). But they also list three reproductive technologies that are far less familiar, and that can be used in reproductive cloning that supposedly "do not require the destruction of any embryos": (1) tetraploid complementation, (2) direct derivation of sperm and egg cells, and (3) embryo splitting ("twinning).

The purpose of this article, then, is to briefly identify just these last three (of many) genetic engineering techniques that UNESCO itself has identified that can asexually turn mere human "cells" into new whole human embryos for reproductive purposes "without destroying embryos". (Yet it does stretch the imagination to believe that, in the course of this "ethical" research, millions of living human embryos will not be required to be destroyed as the desired "means" to an "ethical" end.) The main issues here are not whether a human embryo is a "person", but whether scientifically the human embryo is a human organism per se, or just a "bunch of cells" - and whether human embryos can be asexually reproduced for reproductive purposes? What follows is simply a brief listing of representative research studies from around the world over the last decade, each one likewise similar to dozens or hundreds that can be found in the scientific literature. This article is especially written so that people can be more aware of "where we really are". The long-documented, constantly updated, and internationally acknowledged accurate scientific facts of human embryology are given towards the end of this article.

II. Scientific Documentation of Recent Stem Cell Research for Reproductive Purposes

A. Pre-history

The current surge in stem cell research really started back in 1993, when researchers Robert Stillman and Jerry Hall of the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., cloned human embryos for the first time. They reported their results at a conference of the American Fertility Society.4 The cloning technique they used was "twinning" (see Section B(3) below), and the researchers proposed its use to boost the efficiency of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Stillman noted that, "Twinning could help women who produce very few eggs and thus have trouble getting pregnant, even with the aid of in vitro fertilization". By splitting an early embryo into its constituent totipotent cells, and then allowing the cells to revert to new embryos, doctors could then transfer more than one embryo to the woman's uterus, thus increasing the odds of a successful pregnancy. "Our research is one small step in that direction," Stillman stated.5

Stillman explained the method they used. They took abnormal human embryos left over from IVF, and used a chemical solution to strip the young embryos of their tough outer coating, called the zona pellucida. The shell-like zona pelucida protects the embryo who at this stage has started to divide and consists of from two to eight cells. Next, the researchers carefully separate the individual cells and coat each with an artificial shell. The team created 48 embryos using this technique. The embryos were discarded after developing for 6 days.6 Although the researchers claimed that their research had been approved by the university's IRB and the Ethics Committee of the Medical Center, a university probe denied this, claiming that this cloning research "was attained without full disclosure of facts".7

In 1998, researcher James Thomson, a developmental biologist, and his research team in Wisconsin, were making history. They are best known as the first to report the successful isolation of human embryonic stem cells derived from the inner cell layer of human embryos left over from IVF "infertility" treatments,8 and later for deriving human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) of human somatic cells in 2007.9

Also in 1998, another research team, headed by another developmental biologist, John Gearhart, derived stem cells from cultured human primitive germ cells (these cells are totipotent and eventually differentiate into sperms or oocytes) retrieved from human "fetuses" (5-9 weeks post-fertilization).10 [Note, however that the "embryonic period" is from the beginning of fertilization through 8 weeks; the "fetal period" is from 9 weeks to birth! However, the 1981 federal regulations on the use of human subjects in research mis-defined "fetus" as beginning at "implantation" (which is 5-7 days post-fertilization) and mis-defined "pregnancy" as also beginning at "implantation"].

In 2006, Yamanaka and his team generated induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) from adult mouse fibroblasts,11 and in 2007 he and his team were able to generate iPS cells from human adult fibroblasts.12

The human stem cell roller coaster went into full gear. These human "pluripotent" stem cells, both embryonic and iPS, are now available from various human sources, using various genetic engineering techniques, and can be used for pure research studies (e.g., models of normal and diseased humans), in regenerative medicine for "therapies" to cure diseases in sick patients - and, for reproductive cloning.

But although these cells are capable of differentiating into all three germ layers of an adult, researchers began to identify potential problems. For example, both human embryonic (HE) cells and iPS cells were discovered to have serious genetic abnormalities, as well as changes in the copy number of genes during reprogramming and time in culture.13 iPS cells were found to induce immune rejection responses when injected,14 and seemed to "hold onto their genetic past" more than HE cells.15 Further, iPS cells were found to cause more tumors than HE cells.16 Thus the question remains, how safe are these "stem cells" for human "therapies" to cure diseases in sick patients, much less for women undergoing human reproductive cloning? Even Ian Wilmut, of Dolly the cloned sheep fame, recently noted that human embryonic stem cells and iPS cells, "tend to lead to tumors", thus scientists should spend their time on non-embryonic forms of research, "particularly on a new method called direct reprogramming."17 The jury is still out as to similar problems with even direct programmed cells.18

Next Page: B. Current Genetic Engineering Techniques....
1, 2, 3