From Bio Journal - May 2009

Closeup: The state approves the production of reproductive sells from pluripotent cells

"For the present, the production of reproductive cells from human ES cells and so on, and no further, is approved" was the sentence included in the draft report following the decision taken to go with basic policy in the meeting of the MEXT working group on 27 November 2008. "Human ES cells and so on" include human ES (embryonic stem) cells, human iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, and so on, cells which have special abilities and which are known generally as pluripotent cells. The research steps, broadly classified, are as follows: 1) Cause the pluripotent cells to differentiate and produce reproductive cells; sperm and ova. 2) Use the sperm produced to fertilize the ova produced to obtain fertilized ova. 3) Place the fertilized ova in human or other uteruses. Current MEXT guidelines ban all three steps. The focus of the working group was to decide where the line should now be drawn.

The draft report approves the production of reproductive cells from pluripotent cells for the sole purpose of research into fertility treatments, but concerning the use of these reproductive cells to produce fertilized ova states that, "Due to preparation of the relevant guidelines, it is thought appropriate that this should not be carried out for the time being." This means that 1) only is to be permitted. This then indicates a certain directionality in the discussion of the issues that have been considered over the last three years by the working group and its higher-level specialist panel. Naturally, reproductive cells are inherited by the next generation. Producing a fertilized ovum, whether in a test tube or not, and placing it in the uterus of a woman will result in the birth of a human person. The reason for approval only, this time, of reproductive cells and banning further steps is to take the first firm step forward in expanding the scope of pluripotent cell research while avoiding resistance from public opinion on this very delicate issue.

However, it is quite possible that this bind will be loosened very soon. The ban states only "for the time being" and the line can be moved backeards or forwards to almost any extent depending on the state of progress in research and the intentions of the political power-holders of the time. We should not forget that this is a very fragile arrangement. During the working group deliberations, Professor NAKAUCHI Hiromitsu of the Tokyo University Institute of Medical Science, firmly maintained to the end the claim that step 2), fertilization of ova, should be permitted. Further, the ethics committee of the Japan Society for Reproductive Regeneration, consisting of gynecologists and basic medical science researchers finalized an opinion paper on pluripotent cell research on 24 January 2009 (see BJ March 2009) in order to make an external appeal. The opinion paper takes a directly contradictory stance to the basic policy being formulated by MEXT, claiming that not only should the production of reproductive cells from pluripotent cells be approved, but that approval should also be given to research to produce fertilized ova. This is how arguments for deregulation have already begun both inside and outside the working group.

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