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An unlikely stem cell leader...


An article in this week's The Scientist points out that Iran has been active in stem cell research. Iranian scientists have successfully reprogrammed embryonic stem cells to differentiate into other types of cells potentially useful in therapy.

The article states that Iran's emergence in this field relates to the fact that there is less of a religious objection to working with embryos since "ensoulment" is viewed as taking place a t 120 days. Of course the Iranians are hampered both by international restrictions which has led them to get much of their equipment on the black market as well as difficulty meeting scientists from other countries.

One American researcher, Sara Berga from Emory University who was able to visit Iran's major stem cell center was quoted as being shocked at how far the Iranians have come:

""I was shocked by how future looking [the Iranians] were with their science and medicine,...This is not a country with a lot of material resources, but they've really made a commitment to fundamental science."

So it looks like Iran is carefully targeting key areas of science and technology for development, be it nuclear energy, space science and now stem cell research.

The full article may require you to register...painless and The Scientist is really good about not sending lots of extra stuff:



viewfromahill 8 years ago

"... 'ensoulment' is viewed as taking place a t 120 days."

'ensoulment'... isn't that the point at which the soul's soles are set in cement, just prior to the plunge?

"... they've really made a commitment to fundamental science."

In a word, "Brave...."

devobrun 8 years ago

Nuclear, space systems, stem cell research all have energy and medical applications to the benefit of people.

What other applications do these investigations have, Paul? Who would set limits on these applications, and how would one keep aware of the progress, whether for the good or the nefarious?

Are the decisions made within Iran made by representatives who are elected? Are decisions made by the representatives easily overruled by religious leaders?

In short, should we be glad that Iran has this technology, or should we be scared? Lots of questions.

Paul Decelles 8 years ago


I don't have really good answers to your questions. What I wonder is what will happen to Iranian Society as it becomes more technically able? Will the tension between religious and secular elements in their society increase further?

Will they use their technology for some sort of foreign policy end nefarious perhaps? Certainly that is what Iran's neighbors are worried about. What strikes me about this example as well as the nukes issue is that it is getting increasingly easy for even relatively isolated countries to get access to fairly sophisticated technology.

As for the role of religious leaders, looks like they have been calling the shots with respect to what technological areas to pursue. As to whether or not we should be glad or scared- I guess that depends on whether or not you think that more technology will lead to a moderation of Iranian society.

Quite frankly of more immediate concern is Pakistan-a nuclear state with missiles and an increasingly unstable and vulnerable to terrorist government.

Multi I saw a similar sort of article talking about the risk of tumors from stem cell therapy...I don't know how serious this risk is and for all I know the risk may not be a blanket risk. Here's a link: http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/02/stemcelltumor.html

viewfromahill 8 years ago

Odd sort of cannibalism, fetal stem cell research, prion pathology the metaphor.

Paul Decelles 8 years ago

Actually, View it maybe be more than metaphor if the cells are derived from another person.

viewfromahill 8 years ago

But... Paul... fetuses ARE people (no matter how small)... neopeople... neo.peo.ple.

yourworstnightmare 8 years ago

I haven't carefully studied the science to know how "far" the Iranians have come on stem cell research.

This does point out a larger issue, however. Stem cell research is going to happen. By effectively removing the USA from the game, other entities have the opportunity to seize this issue and the USA loses scientific and moral authority regarding it.

These are the backwaters in which rigid ideology places its practitioners.

Paul Decelles 8 years ago


Of course a fetus is not an embryo either so be careful about that. Ideally we will learn to harvest and use a person's own stem cells for therapeutic purposes rather than rely on embryonic stem cells.

But research into embryonic stem cells is necessary to understand the mechanisms involved in working with stem cells and getting them to do what we want. George Bush understood that one though his solution was poor.

viewfromahill 8 years ago

Paul: "Of course a fetus is not an embryo either so be careful about that."

Reality organized around the limitations (failing) of language. There is no embryo, no fetus, only a continuously developing entity from the point of conception.

Paul: "But research into embryonic stem cells is necessary...."

Granted, I am not familiar with the particulars, here, but if the assertion surrounds the wanton destruction of a life conceived, then, far from being necessary, such an act would be amoral if not immoral, the moment of conception being the point of demarcation. Arguably, amoral actions within the existential context are, by definition, immoral. Immoral "research" does not qualify as science.

Paul Decelles 8 years ago

But does that entity have the same status throughout its development? Clearly there is lots of disagreement about that one and its easy to fall into the trap of arguing from extremes e.g a new born baby is a person therefore the zygote as conception is also a person.

Yes there is a continuity between the zygote and the new born infant but there are distinct developmental stages. Lets take your language and do a little bit of substitution

seed for embryo, tree for fetus and your sentence becomes:

(with apologies to the botanists among us)

"There is no seed, no tree, only a continuously developing entity from the point of conception."

I do not present this as an argument for abortion, but I have not been impressed with the argumentation used by people in this debate.

viewfromahill 8 years ago

Paul: "But does that entity have the same status throughout its development?"

Inherently, existentially, yes.

From the moment of conception, the point at which the conceived entity is endowed with the full genetic complement which defines "human," and given a sufficiently sustaining environment, ALL humans share a common potential for ongoing development along any of a number of continua--physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual....

ALL humans.

Paul Decelles 8 years ago

Well View there are problems with that argument too...but be that as it may technology has a way of making arguments moot. For intsance:


The point of this article is that it has been known that you can reprogram skin cells to become so called pluripotent stem cells. But the technique involved involved introducing certain genes into the cells using a virus which was uncertain and risky.

What these scientists have been able to do is use a mobile genetic unit called a transposon to introduce the genes. Not only are the transposons not infectuous, they can be removed when no longer needed.

yourworstnightmare 8 years ago

Fertilization does produce a diploid zygote from haploid germ cells.

However, the process of cloning by somatic cell nuclear transfer bypasses fertilization resulting in a zygote with a diploid nucleus transplanted from another cell, such as a skin cell.

Therefore, the DNA content of cloned organisms was not produced by fertilization by rather is identical to the nucleus donor.

All manner of mammals have now been cloned, and there is no reason to think that humans could not be. Indeed, they already have been, but the embryos were not implanted into a uterus but instead were used to generate stem cells.

Since these embryos were not produced by fertilization, do they fit the definition of "human" as described above? Just wondering.

viewfromahill 8 years ago

Paul... eh?

mare: "Since these embryos were not produced by fertilization...."

Apparently, they were... initially... at the point at which the full genetic complement was assembled.

I suppose that, even if aberration or abomination, human life which holds a potential for the attainment of "personhood" (for lack of another term) is worthy.

Paul Decelles 8 years ago

Nightmare, you raise a good question. Consider this one ..a skin cell is reprogrammed to behave as a zygote rather than a pluripotent stem cell. Not likely in the future but maybe not impossible. That would be truly cloning!

Oh here's an interesting link: http://www.pnas.org/content/102/32/11361.full

Would that type of cell - not produced by somatic nuclear transfer have the same status as a zygote in the the womb? Hey I don't know. It does seem to me, and this is just a gut reaction, that if you think that a zygote is morally a human being then it would make sense to consider a diploid cell produced by somatic cell transfer to be human as well.

Maybe view has some thoughts on this.

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