Beginnings Reporting on science and intelligent design

Stealth stem cells

Science | A breakthrough discovery could be good news for patients and embryos
by Kiley Crossland
Posted 2/21/19, 03:56 pm

A new scientific discovery using gene-edited stem cells provides further evidence that scientists don’t need to kill embryos to find cures for degenerative diseases.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), announced this week they used the CRISPR gene-editing system to create stem cells that can develop into any kind of cell in the body and functionally hide from the immune system, making them rejection-proof when transplanted. The discovery could ultimately provide an ethical and efficient means of creating insulin cells for diabetes patients, heart cells for heart attack victims, neurons for stroke victims, and other replacement cells for patients with a wide range of diseases. The scientists published the findings in the journal Nature Biotechnology on Monday.

For years, scientists pushed the idea that research on embryos was essential to regenerative medicine because embryos contain pluripotent stem cells that can develop into any type of cell in the body. But the process of harvesting the stem cells destroys the embryos and ends a nascent human life. In 2007, two scientists, one from Great Britain and another from Japan, reported they had induced adult cells to become pluripotent, a discovery that does not endanger embryos. The scientists, John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, won a Nobel Prize in 2012 for their discovery of the so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

The latest discovery at UCSF overcomes one of the final major impediments to ethical regenerative therapy from stem cells: immune system rejection. Rejection is a potential problem with embryonic stem cell therapy because the embryos from which the cells are harvested don’t share the same DNA as the patient. (Some scientists have proposed using cloned embryos to yield genetically identical stem cells for recipients, piling on even more ethical problems.)

The UCSF scientists used gene editing to delete two genes that help with sending signals from the cell to the immune system, identifying a cell as native or foreign. They also engineered the iPSCs with a protein that acts as a “do not eat me” signal to killer immune system cells.

The scientists transplanted the resulting stem cells into mice with normal immune systems and mice with immune systems artificially changed to mimic humans’, both without any symptoms of rejection. They then derived human heart cells from the immune-blocking iPSCs and transplanted them into the humanized mice. The heart cells survived and even started forming rudimentary blood vessels and heart muscles.

“Our technique solves the problem of rejection of stem cells and stem cell-derived tissues, and represents a major advance for the stem cell therapy field,” said Tobias Deuse, the chair of cardiac surgery at UCSF and the lead author of the new study. “We only need to manufacture our cells one time and we’re left with a product that can be applied universally.”

Up until now, researchers have used an individualized approach that takes fully mature human skin or fat cells from a patient and reprograms them into iPSCs. The theory has been that cells from a patient’s own body will carry his or her DNA signature and prevent rejection. But it hasn’t worked out that well in practice: Some patients’ cells resist reprogramming, and it has proved expensive and time-consuming to produce tailor-made iPSCs for every patient. The new development could provide a reliable source of iPSCs for all patients without destroying embryos or triggering immune system rejection.

“Bottom line: it’s a big deal if it can be transferred over to the clinic,” David Prentice, a biochemist and the vice president and research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, told me. The development of iPSCs has already shown that medicine does not need to rely on the destruction of young human beings to get pluripotent stem cells, Prentice said. The UCSF study “pushes back big time” and means there would be “no need whatsoever for an embryonic stem cell because these cells will do anything an embryonic stem cell can do.”

Asked about the timeline for this kind of groundbreaking treatment, Prentice said he would bet scientists will try it in a clinical trial in the next two years.

Associated Press/Photo by Bullit Marquez Associated Press/Photo by Bullit Marquez Philippine National Red Cross and Health Department volunteers vaccinate children Saturday in Manila.

Heartbreaking outbreak

Concerns about the possible harmful side effects of vaccines contributed to a measles outbreak in the Philippines that has already killed 136 people, according to health officials. Most of the casualties are children between the ages of 1 and 4.

In 2016, close to a million children in the Philippines received Dengvaxia, a vaccine for the mosquito-borne illness dengue fever. Children who got the vaccine were more likely to be hospitalized after contracting the disease than those who weren’t inoculated, the vaccine manufacturer announced in 2017. The incident led to a higher mistrust of vaccinations in the country.

Philippine health officials are urging people to vaccinate their children against the measles, and about 130,000 people got the vaccine last week. But the infection rate continues to rise, and health minister Francisco Duque warned that the outbreak could last until May.

“No ifs, no buts, no conditions, you just have to bring your children and trust that the vaccines … will save your children,” Duque said. “That’s the absolute answer to this outbreak.” —Samantha Gobba

Associated Press/Photo by Ariel Schalit Associated Press/Photo by Ariel Schalit Technicians with the SpaceIL lunar module near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec. 17

Fly me to the moon

Members of an Israeli space project are aiming for the first successful landing of a private spacecraft on the moon. The lander, Beresheet—named after the first book in the Torah—is set to launch Thursday on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and orbit the Earth several times before heading to the moon. Israeli entrepreneur Morris Kahn, state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries, SpaceIL, and Jewish-American casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson backed the project.

SpaceIL and its three founding engineers decided in 2011 to take on the Google Lunar XPRIZE challenge, hoping to be the first private entity to send an unmanned craft to the moon. Google ended the project in 2018 with no winners, but SpaceIL decided to carry on with its lunar ambitions. The group wrote on its website that it hoped the project would create an “Apollo effect” in Israel, inspiring the next generation to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, and math like the Apollo missions to the moon did in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s.

“Kids today in Israel and also in the U.S., they’re not as interested in science and engineering because it’s harder,” Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of SpaceIL, told the website From the Grapevine. “It’s much easier to watch reality TV.”

The team is sending its craft with a time capsule containing three discs of digital files, including drawings by Israeli children of the moon. The engineers hope Beresheet will make lunar landing on April 11 after a long series of orbits around both the Earth and the moon. —S.G.

Shapiro on intelligent design

Popular radio host and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro recently spoke out on intelligent design, saying the theory has merit, though he still believes evolution led to the complex life on Earth today. Last week, on his podcast The Ben Shapiro Show, he positively reviewed Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, a book by Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and a leading proponent of intelligent design.

Shapiro said he is not a “fundamental creationist.” He believes in the theory of evolution, that the Earth is billions of years old, and that humanity is hundreds of thousands of years old.

“I agree with all of that stuff,” Shapiro said. “This is a deeply scientifically knowledgeable book basically asking some serious questions about why it is that DNA seems to have been designed. There are significant scientific realities that require some explanation as to how evolution could have, in an undirected fashion, resulted in them.” —S.G.

Kiley Crossland

Kiley is a WORLD Digital assistant editor and reports on marriage, family, and sexuality.

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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Fri, 02/22/2019 06:55 am

    Interesting news from the world of science. I did notice that UCSF, the correct abbreviation, is initially listed incorrectly as USCF. My fingers don't always type what I intend either. The remainder of the article seems to get it right.

    I always find discussions of evolution vs creation (or ID) a curiosity that typically boils down to presuppositions. Even Ben Shapiro can't shake them even when confronted with scientific DNA evidence. At least he is more honest than most evolutionists that I run across in that won't even admit that there are areas of evolution that need to be reconsidered. As has been noted elsewhere regarding Darwinianism, it is no longer Darwin (or evolution) vs the Bible or Christians but now is truly Darwin vs Science. Presuppositions matter. 

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Fri, 02/22/2019 10:14 am

    Thank you for pointing out the error. We corrected the abbreviation.

    Posted: Sat, 02/23/2019 03:56 pm

    Engineering stem cells to avoid rejection by the immune system is indeed good news for patients; however, I’m not sure how it’s good news for embryos. If anything, it seems like the demand for embryonic stem cells will increase now that a major barrier to using them therapeutically has been overcome.