Earlier today, the Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to British and Japanese scientists John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka. The men's work found that adult cells can be returned to their stem cell state, a discovery that undercuts the utilitarian embryonic stem cell research and use (a little poetic that the prize was awarded during this year's "40 Days for Life".)
The Stem Cell Debate
Scientists have long known that stem cells might hold the key to repairing debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and injuries like Christopher Reeve's paralyzing spinal cord injury. This is because stem cells are cellular "blanks" awaiting specialization. They have all the coding they need to become any type of cell for their body, and can be tailored to replace the specific cells that are damaged.
In the past, some have supported embryonic stem cells, which takes cells that haven't specialized yet. Embryonic cells can be harvested from aborted babies or, more often, from eggs donated for research that are fertilized in the lab and never implanted into a woman's womb. Many Christians and others oppose research this on ethical grounds, citing sanctity of life and the issue of benefiting from the death of children.
Gurdon and Yamanaka's combined work may make one of the best inroads yet in the argument against embryonic cell use: effectiveness. Just like a transplanted organ, cells transplanted from another person risk rejection. This risk disappears when using the patient's own cells, but until that was impossible. Embryos were the only viable place to get stem cells. What the Nobel Prize winners were able to do was effectively strip the narrowed specialization away from mature cells, returning them to state of unspecialized potential.
This could possibly mean that someday, a patient's skin cell could be stripped of its skin specialization, and be reassigned as a spinal cord cell, or a brain cell, or an eye cell. It also means that stem cell research that so many researchers, patient advocates, and others have wanted can be done without violating sanctity of life. We may be able to move forward medically by moving away from the ethical stalemate.
Gurdon and Yamanaka's work may make all this possible. However, there are still unknowns on both the scientific and ethical fronts: the growth of these cells may not be controllable, resulting in cancer; the potential uses may increase the demand for embryonic stem cells; the sanctity of life debate may not furthered by any of this.
That's why, in my opinion, we shouldn't rush to endorse or demonize particular scientific findings. Science (and the scientist) is neither Savior nor Satan, and we should avoid setting up the Church as a scientific review board. If you're a scientist, go for it. But for the rest of us, let's celebrate this advancement, then keep weighing in as God's NaCl and Photon waves to the (scientific) world.