Shinya Yamanaka, a scientist at Kyoto University, loved stem-cell research. But he didn’t want to destroy embryos. So he figured out a way around the problem. In a paper published five years ago in Cell, Yamanaka and six colleagues showed how “induced pluripotent stem cells” could be derived from adult cells and potentially substituted, in research and therapy, for embryonic stem cells. Today, that discovery earned him a Nobel Prize, shared with British scientist John Gurdon. But the prize announcement and much of the media coverage missed half the story. Yamanaka’s venture wasn’t just an experiment. It was a moral project.
In the introduction to their Cell paper, Yamanaka and his colleagues outlined their reasons for seeking an alternative to conventional embryonic stem-cell research. “Ethical controversies” came first in their analysis. Technical reasons—the difficulty of making patient-specific embryonic stem cells—came second. After the paper’s publication, Yamanaka told a personal story, related by the New York Times:
Inspiration can appear in unexpected places. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka found it while looking through a microscope at a friend’s fertility clinic. … [H]e 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. … “I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.”
Yamanaka’s misgivings weren’t absolute. In 2009, when President Obama lifted the U.S. ban on federal funding of embryo-destructive stem-cell research, Yamanaka attended the ceremony to show his support. Yamanaka explained his ambivalence to New Scientist in December 2007. “Patients’ lives are more important than embryos,” he said. But “I do want to avoid the use of embryos if possible.”
From September 2009 to June 2012, Yamanaka won three major international science prizes. Each citation recognized the moral significance of his work. In 2009, the Lasker Foundation selected him for its prestigious medical research award, noting that his technique overcame “the controversy that accompanies methods based on embryonic stem cells.” In 2010, the Inamori Foundation awarded him the Kyoto Prize, again citing “ethical concerns” that had burdened previous embryonic stem-cell research. In 2012, the Technology Academy of Finland gave him its Millennium Technology Prize, explicitly for “Ethical Stem Cells Research.” The academy praised Yamanaka for making possible “stem cell research into drugs, treatments and transplants without having to use human embryos.”
The Nobel committee, however, made no mention of Yamanaka’s moral achievement. Not in its presentation, not in its press release, not in its interview with the laureate. It credited him only with developing “new tools” to study disease and develop therapies. Many reporters took the same approach. In its 600-word story, CNN ignored the ethics of Yamanaka’s work. The Los Angeles Times called restrictions on embryo destruction mere “headaches” for scientists. The New York Times said Yamanaka’s work, like other stem-cell technologies, had “generated objections from people who fear, on ethical or religious grounds, that scientists are pressing too far into nature’s mysteries and the ability to create life artificially.”
That’s completely wrong. Even before Yamanaka’s landmark paper, pro-lifers were all over his work. They loved it. The Vatican had followed his research with interest for years. When Cell published his paper, a pro-life coalition immediately declared his method “superior to cloning as a means of obtaining patient-specific pluripotent stem cells.” In a homily distributed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Rigali declared that Yamanaka’s story about looking into a fertility-clinic microscope showed how “God can use a helpless embryo to change a human heart.” People at the National Right to Life Committee were openly rooting for Yamanaka to win a Nobel.
Now he’s won it. And we shouldn’t turn away from the moral aspect of this achievement just because it gratifies the conservative side of the old stem-cell debate. Yamanaka transformed that debate forever. He tore down the wall between preserving embryos and saving lives. He did what only a scientist could have done: He made it possible for both sides to win. In the words of Julian Savulescu, an ethicist and supporter of embryonic stem-cell research, Yamanaka “deserves not only a Nobel Prize for Medicine, but a Nobel Prize for Ethics.”
Congratulations, Dr. Yamanaka. And thank you. From all of us.
William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: