Dr Shinya Yamanaka wins the Nobel Prize for Medicine and gives us a much-needed lesson on the beginning of life

When the newly appointed UK Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced last week that he would support lowering the upper limit for abortion to 12 weeks, nobody could have imagined what a headline grabbing statement it would turn out to be.
Much of the subsequent media attention focused on discussions about the beginning of life and what value should be attributed to it at what stages of development.

The Conservative Party was gathering for its Annual Conference and quite possibly would have preferred not to have to wade deeply into a controversial discussion about termination of pregnancy. The media, however, was more than delighted and the news has been widely discussed over the last days in print, on television and on radio, culminating in the illustrious BBC Newsnight’s coverage on Monday night. BBC abortion debate

An unforgettable highlight from other coverage for those who, like myself, take a scientific as well as ethical perspective, on the abortion debate, has to be the attempts by a representative of major UK abortion provider bpas (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) to respond to a BBC interviewer’s question as to when does life begin. BBC Interview

Asked three times what her explanation would be for the beginning of life, the question was completely sidestepped once, but on the other two occasions her answers were as follows:

I think the point is more when does life begin to matter and I think for some women that will be from the moment they conceive and for some women it will be much later.’

I think we all come to this from very personal perspectives and the idea that you can put a date on when life begins … and I think that will vary from pregnancy to pregnancy.’

So the beginning of life in the womb varies from woman to woman, and even from pregnancy to pregnancy!

Pity the BBC did not have a chance to ask the same question of Dr Shinya Yamanaka, who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2012. This brilliant young Japanese scientist, building on the work of his co-prizewinner, UK’s Sir John B Gurdon (who established that cells can go backwards as well as forwards in time), Yamanaka has perfected the science of turning mature adult cells back to their pluripotent earlier state, by-passing the controversies of using embryonic stem cells. He started his work with mice and then moved on to human cells.

How does this tie in with the abortion discussion above?

It was in 2007 that Yamanaka revealed in a New York Times interview that he had woken up to the reality of what the early human embryo was when he was looking down a microscope in a friend’s IVF clinic. ‘When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. And I thought, we can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.’ He searched for this way and he found it, and has been justly rewarded with a Nobel Prize.

Congratulations to Professor Yamanaka for his well-deserved prize, but also for so simply and poignantly reminding us of the biological beginning of human life. It starts with the human embryo. That fact is scientifically indisputable.

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