WASHINGTON – A Japanese researcher who discovered a way to produce stem cells that act like embryonic ones without their lethal consequences has won a Nobel Prize.
The Nobel Foundation awarded its 2012 prize in physiology or medicine to Shinya Yamanaka, who was able to reprogram adult skin cells into cells that have virtually the identical properties of embryonic ones, which have the ability to change into any cell or tissue in the body. In the Oct. 8 announcement, Yamanaka, 50, shared the Nobel Prize with British scientist John Gurdon, 79, whose work in 1962 paved the way for the Japanese researcher’s breakthrough.
Unlike embryonic stem cells, reprogrammed cells – also known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – do not cause harm to a donor. The extraction of embryonic stem cells, however, results in the destruction of a days-old human embryo.
The “life” issue also was a theme in the awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Chinese writer Mo Yan, a critic of his country’s coercive population control policy, received the award Oct. 11 from the Nobel Foundation, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Yan’s most recent novel, “Wa,” “illuminates the consequences of China’s imposition of a single-child policy,” according to the Nobel news release.
Yamanaka, the Nobel physiology/medicine winner who teaches at Kyoto University in Japan, was motivated in his search for a safe way to produce embryonic-like cells by a look through a microscope at a human embryo stored at a fertility clinic in the late 1990s.
“When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,” Yamanaka told The New York Times in 2007. “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”
In 2006, he found a way to induce adult cells to take on embryonic-like, or “pluripotent,” qualities. Embryonic stem cells are considered “pluripotent,” meaning they can develop into all of the different cell types in the body. Adult stem cells typically have been regarded as “multipotent,” meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body’s cell types. Yamanaka’s work showed adult cells could become “pluripotent” and thereby avoid the ethical problems with embryonic stem cells.
Pro-life bioethics specialist Wesley Smith lauded the Nobel Foundation’s decision to reward Yamanaka, writing on his blog, “This is so deserved!”
“Bravo Dr. Yamanaka! You proved that good ethics leads to splendid science,” Smith said.
The ability of stem cells to convert to other cells and tissues has provided great hope for developing cures for various diseases. Embryonic stem cell research has yet to provide any treatments for human beings and has been plagued by tumors in lab animals, however. Reprogrammed, or iPS, cells have demonstrated promising results but have not been used in human trials.
Only treatments using adult stem cells have produced successful therapies, including for such afflictions as cancer, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart damage, Parkinson’s, sickle cell anemia and spinal cord injuries.
Adult stem cells “have a proven track record for success at saving lives and improving health on a daily basis,” stem cell expert David Prentice of the Family Research Council told National Right to Life News Today. “Over 50,000 people around the globe are treated each year with adult stem cells.”
Mo, the Nobel winner in literature, focuses in his novel Wa on a rural doctor who delivers babies but also aborts them as she helps enforce China’s coercive family planning – or “one-child” – policy, according to a report by the pro-life organization All Girls Allowed.
Mo, 57, said in a 2010 interview he pressured his wife to abort their second child in order to protect his officer’s rank in the Chinese army.
“I personally believe the one-child policy is a bad policy,” he told Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, according to All Girls Allowed. “If there were no one-child policy, I would have two or three children.
“This has become an eternal scar in the deepest part of my heart. … It became a big shadow in my heart.”
China’s population control program generally limits couples in urban areas to one child and those in rural areas to two, if the first is a girl. Parents in cities may have second babies if the husband and wife are both only children. Couples who violate the policy face the possibility of not only forced abortions or sterilizations but of large fines, job loss and imprisonment.
The policy has resulted not only in many reports of authorities carrying out forced abortions and sterilizations, but there also have been accounts of infanticide. It has helped produce a dramatic gender imbalance because of the Chinese preference for sons.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)