At present, there are three small human safety embryonic stem cell studies. All deal with macular degeneration-type conditions. And now, a human trial looks to soon get underway in Japan using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), that is, stem cells made from a patient’s own skin or other tissues. From the Nature News story:
Having already received IRB approval at her home institution, Takahashi can now move towards the final step before patient recruitment: getting health ministry approval. She’s expected receive that in time for starting the trials during this fiscal year, ending March 2014. The trial will enroll six patients older than 50 years of age. The researchers will remove damaged pigment epithelium and then implant a small sheet of new epithelium. The sheet will be created by coaxing iPS cells, created from the patient’s body cells, to become epithelium cells.
Takahashi says that apart from a small risk of damage from the surgical procedure itself (sticking a needle in the eye) and a much smaller risk of the stem cells themselves going awry, preclinical studies suggest the procedure to be safe. The clinical trial, meant to demonstrate the safety of the procedure in humans, is not expected to reverse the damage of macular degeneration, but researchers hope that it will at least slow its progress.
I believe that stem cell science is fast catching up with desirable stem cell ethics. That is, we may be able to have all the treatment and curative benefits touted for embryonic stem cells — without the embryo destruction part. That would allow society a common way forward without the contention we saw in the last decade.
Of course, human cloning is what some in biotechnology really want, as it is the necessary technology to enable genetic engineering and other Brave New World technologies. But if iPSCs work as treatments — and indeed, if direct reprogramming, in which a skin cell can be turned into a heart cell, prove effective — it will be pretty hard to sell a wary public on allowing human cloning, much less having the public fund the research. And think of it: Our skin would always have the potential of being used as a powerful healer. Onward!
(Yes, this fulfills another of my predictions in bioethics for 2013.)