Thinking about stem cell research and intent



Publish date

December 11, 2007

Topic(s): Uncategorized

The New York Times profiles Shinya Yamanaka today and the piece includes a number of interesting details about his research. But the anecdote that stands out most is the one about what prompted him to pursue the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells.

photo of Shinya Yamanaka
Shinya Yamanaka

From the piece by Martin Fackler:

Inspiration can appear in unexpected places. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka found it while looking through a microscope at a friends fertility clinic.

Dr. Yamanaka was an assistant professor of pharmacology doing research involving embryonic stem cells when he made the social call to the clinic about eight years ago. At the friends invitation, he looked down the microscope at one of the human embryos stored at the clinic. The glimpse changed his scientific career.

When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters, said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two and now a professor at the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences at Kyoto University. I thought, we cant keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.

Later in the article it’s mentioned that Yamanaka’s San Francisco lab does use embryos for research — he says it’s currently unavoidable, but adds that his goal is to stop.

photo of James Thomson
James Thomson

Yamanaka’s story contrasts somewhat with that of his counterpart, James Thomson. The Wisconsin researcher has acknowledged that any research involving human embryos should make us think long and hard before proceding, but he’s also stated that practical — not ethical — reasons prompted his pursuit of iPS cells.

Much has been made recently about the degree to which moral concerns did or didn’t push the research in this direction. But in the end does it matter? If Yamanaka — or Thomson — alone had created iPS cells, would that (should that) have changed the way we look at the development? Does it make a difference if two researchers are propelled by two different motivations to arrive at the same endpoint?

-Greg Dahlmann

photo of Yamanaka: Kyoto University
photo of Thomson: Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison

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