How will chemically induced pluripotent stem cells impact stem cell policy?

Author: Ubaka Ogbogu, 12/16/10

Chris Kamel’s recent post on chemically derived transcription factors for iPS cell production is very exciting for a variety of non-scientific reasons. Most notably, the innovative procedure and future improvements are likely to ease ethical, safety and legal concerns regarding the use of oncogenic transcription factors. One such concern is the possibility that Canadian law currently prohibits the further differentiation of iPS cells (derived from gene inducement) into germ cells (this is a logical next step in iPS cell research). The ban is mostly likely ‘collateral damage’ from definitional ambiguities inherent in the sweeping and confusing language of Canadian legislation on assisted human reproduction and related research. iPS cells had not been discovered at the time the legislation was enacted, and was neither contemplated nor mentioned throughout the legislative activity surrounding the law. The ban also depends on the interpretation that the genetic reprogramming method creates an inheritable alteration in the DNA of an iPS cell that can theoretically be transmitted to offspring if the iPS cell is differentiated into germ cells. If the germ cells so produced were then used for reproductive purposes, this, in the eye of the law, would amount to germ-line genetic alteration, an activity that is criminally prohibited in Canada. A law simply prohibiting the use of genetically altered germ-line cells for reproduction would not be objectionable (this is the case in Australia) but Canadian law appears to prohibit the activity for all intents and purposes.

As predicted a couple of years ago by Peter Rugg-Gunn and I in a Journal of International Biotechnology Law piece on “The legal status of novel stem cell technologies in Canada”, the possibility that iPS cell differentiation into germ cells is banned in Canada “may be avoided with future refinements to iPS cell generation, for example by using chemical modifications to stimulate reprogramming without changes to the genome of the somatic cell.” It appears as if the latest research reported here is one right step in this direction. What would be best for this promising area of research are advances that sidestep possible ethical and legal controversy, and progress that stimulates and informs clear and responsible science policy. Kudos to the Scripps Research Institute team!


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Ubaka Ogbogu

Ubaka Ogbogu is an Assistant Professor and the Katz Group Research Fellow in Health Law at the Faculty of Law, University of Alberta. His teaching and research interests include health law, law and biotechnology, law and bioethics, science and regulation, and legal history. Ubaka is a former SCN trainee and a recipient of the SCN Canadian Alumni Award. He has done extensive research work on the ethical, legal and social issues associated with stem cell research, and continues to research and publish in this area. Ubaka holds law degrees at the bachelors and masters levels from the University of Benin in Nigeria and the University of Alberta, and is currently in the process of completing a doctorate in law at the University of Toronto. His doctoral work focuses on the legal history of early health care and biotechnology policies in Canada, particularly in relation to smallpox vaccination and infectious diseases.
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