January 23, 2013

AFP Report on ‘Potential Breakthrough’ Flags Embryonic Stem Cell Research As Unnecessary

An unbylined Agence France-Presse report Wednesday opens by telling readers that Japanese researchers “have succeeded in growing human kidney tissue from stem cells for the first time, in a potential first step towards helping millions who depend on dialysis.” Another version of the report at another website identifies the reporter as Harumi Ozawa; an accompanying picture caption describes the achievement as a “potential breakthrough.”

I perused Ozawa’s dispatch to see what kind of stem cells were involved, and in the process came across a confirmation of what those of us who have been following these matters for several years have suspected for some time, namely that the supposed scientific justification for harvesting stem cells from human embryos — supposedly because there is no other path towards combating many diseases and maladies — no longer exists. The paragraph containing that confirmation, as well as an odd and likely nonscientific term Ozawa used in the previous paragraph, are in bold in the excerpt following the jump:

Researchers grow kidney tissue from stem cells for first time

… Kidneys have a complex structure that is not easily repaired, but the latest findings put scientists on the road to fixing a diseased or distressed organ, they said.

… Kenji Osafune of Kyoto University said his team had managed to take stem cells—the “blank slates” capable of being programmed to become any kind of cell in the body—and nudge them specifically in the direction of kidney tissue.

“It was a very significant step,” he told AFP.

Osafune said they had succeeded in generating intermediate mesoderm tissue from the stem cells, a middle point between the blank slate and the finished kidney tissue.

… This embryonic intermediary can be grown either in test tubes or in a living host into specific kidney cells.

Stem cell work has been controversial until relatively recently because embryos were the only source, and their harvesting led to the destruction of what some people consider a human life.

This research has used induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells, a bio-technology where a fully-developed adult cell is effectively re-engineered to return it to its infant state.

Last year, Shinya Yamanaka, director of the Centre for iPS Cell Research and Application of which Osafune is a part, was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for medicine for his pioneering work on the iPS cells.

Parsing the bolded paragraph — If “stem cell work has been controversial until relatively recently,” that means it’s no longer controversial. That can only be because embryos are not the only source, and because scientists no longer need to take human life to continue to make medical advancements.

Maybe it’s a matter of clumsy translation from another language, but Ozawa’s description of the “mesoderm tissue” in the previous paragraph as an “embryonic intermediary” is improper. While the dictionary defines mesoderm as “the middle germ layer of a metazoan embryo,” there are no embryos involved in Osafune’s research. A more proper term for what the research team has created would be something on the order of “embryo-imitating tissue.”

At Nature Communications, the web site where the research paper was published, after confirming that its search engine results containing terms used in submitted papers which cannot be accessed by non-subscribers, I found no evidence that “embryonic intermediary” is an accepted scientific term. A search on that term (in quotes) returned no results; searches on unrelated terms in quotes did return results.

Thus, we have a de facto acknowledgment by an establishment press outlet that stem cell research involving the killing of human embryos is irrelevant to medical advancement. Someone should tell the editorial board at the New York Times. On Sunday, they wrote that “Congress should lift virtually all restrictions on this promising area of research.”

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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