“Human Stem Cell Research” has been headline news since 1998 when embryonic stem cells were first scientifically isolated. Many claims were made for “medical miracles” that could be discovered through this research. Since then, newspaper and magazine articles either championed or vilified embryonic stem cell research.
In reality, there exists a more general field of stem cell research than just embryonic stem cell research. Another, and possibly a more important area, is the research into the usefulness of adult stem cells. Adult stem cells can be harvested without destroying life as we shall see is not the case with embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cell research is not as well-publicized and is not as well-known by the general public as embryonic stem cell research. This situation (as seen and reported by the media) may be due to the less radical cell harvesting methods for adult stem cells than the sensationalism and controversy which surround the embryonic stem cell harvesting methods.
Terms and Definitions
Before starting the discussion about the general field of human stem cell research, it is important to define terms and abbreviations used throughout publications and lectures on this subject matter in order to provide clear meanings and understandings of the concepts. Terms and abbreviations are often used interchangeably so that the intent of the writer becomes confusing to the general public.
1) Stem Cell: a master cell from which all other cells originate.
2) Embryo: in humans, a stage of development between the second and eighth week of gestation.
3) Embryonic Stem Cell (ESC): master cells from a few-days-old embryo.
4) Blastocyst: a stage, 8- to 10-days-old in embryonic development.
5) Adult Stem Cell (ASC): a stem cell from persons already born.
6) Pluripotent: the ability of a stem cell to develop into any kind of cell in the body.
7) Somatic Cell Nucleus Transfer (SCNT): the first step in cloning; involves removal of the nucleus of one cell transferring it to another cell. This action kills the first cell.
Human Stem Cells
Our bodies are made of millions of cells, some of which are called stem cells or master cells. The role of these cells is to form the totality of the body and its functions and then continue the regenerative process of repair and replacement of worn out and damaged cells throughout body life. In cases where cells do not naturally repair themselves, medical intervention is then needed. Hence, the need for medical research into the regenerative properties of stem cells.
Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC)
Embryonic stem cells (ESC) come from the nucleus of a few-days-old human embryo called a blastocyst.1 The ESC has three basic traits which make it so important to research scientists.
· ESC are pluripotent, which means they are able to develop into any kind of body cell.
· They have the astonishing ability to self renew and could grow replacements for organ tissues and cells damaged by disease.
· They are human.2
The process of obtaining (harvesting) ESC is extracting them from the blastocyst, thus killing a living human being. Morally, this is why it is absolutely condemned. It is the taking of a human life. Besides the moral issue of killing a living human being, there are other difficulties, one of which is the vast numbers of embryos needed for experimentation. An example was the unsuccessful cloning attempt in Korea where over 2,200 embryos were destroyed in the process. Three more major problem areas in ESC research are:
· Research with rats has demonstrated that ESC tends to form cancerous tumors.
· Because ESC comes from a donor rather than the recipient, tissue rejections are a possibility.
· SCT will be needed to avoid rejection because the human body rejects foreign bodies. Cloning produces an ESC with the same DNA as the recipient.
To date, there have been no cures or treatments to any disease or medical condition in humans attributed to ESC research. Proponents will argue “of course, that’s because of so little money being allocated by the government to this research.” Whatever the arguments, many of the obstacles stated above seem to be deterrents to this research area.
Adult Stem Cells (ASC)
Adult stem cells (ASC) is the term given to master cells throughout the human body. Some sources from which ASC can be harvested are: bone marrow from the recipient’s own body, amniotic fluid, the umbilical cord and placental blood.3 Important traits of ASC are:
· There is no tissue rejection when taken from and used on the same individual.
· ASC have some pluripotency, though not as much as ESC. However, a recent study reported in the Journal of Biotechnology showed that cells from amniotic fluid collected during routine amniocentesis (a medical procedure performed during a pregnancy to determine if any fetal defects are present) could have many of the same properties as ESC.
· Research using ASC has already been successful in treating or curing a number of medical conditions. An example of such a cure involved a person with a severe bone fracture, which was not healing. The ASC were harvested from the person’s own bone marrow. Bone-producing cells from the marrow were stimulated in the lab to make them multiply and were then transplanted at the fracture site. The fracture healed.
· A recent issue of U.S. News & World Report reported that umbilical cord blood had played an important role in forcing a little girl’s leukemia into remission. The discovery that cord blood has been found to transform into blood or immune cells has initiated cord blood banks throughout America. The blood can be stored indefinitely once it is taken from the cord and stored in liquid nitrogen. Since 2006, there have been nearly 8,000 cord blood transplants. Cord blood works against some 70 diseases including leukemia, lymphoma and sickle cell anemia.4
· Michael Fumento, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute stated, “Embryonic Stem Cell research is so far behind it’s a joke….. We’re getting everything we need out of non-embryonic stem cells, and what we are getting is incredible.”5
The Moral and Ethical Question
Why, then, is there such a vigorous push for more research with ESC when we know ASC is already so effective? Dr. Jose Simon Castellvi, surgeon and President of the International Federation of Medical Associations, in an interview held last September in Barcelona, Spain, summed it all up very well when he said: “The human being cannot and must not imitate God. This is very clear. And it is money along with scientific arrogance and at times a false sensation of doing good to humanity, that research is carried out with human embryos.”6
Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer
An additional term, Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), needs to be understood for what it really is. SCNT is the first step in the cloning process. Surveys concerning ESC research that employed the word cloning caused the public to reject that research. But, when SCNT was substituted for cloning, public objection to ESC research was much less. Most likely, SCNT was either a new phrase to them, or it was a more scientific-sounding term. This public reaction may have contributed to the lower level objection. Expect to see and hear the term “SCNT” to be more frequently used by proponents of ESC research. Probably, because of this phenomenon, Missouri was able to pass last November, an amendment to their state constitution permitting SCNT plus allowing funding for ESC research.7
The Effects of Politics
In addition to knowing what the terms ESC, ASC and SCNT mean in the national stem cell debate, we also need to understand the role of politics. Federal grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are the primary funding sources for basic biomedical research in the U.S. The differing opinions, liberal and conservative between the two major parties has and will continue to affect how NIH funding is distributed. A good example of this concerns the drama surrounding the bill, HR 810, “The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act” proposed by proponents of ESC research. Originally, the bill passed both houses of Congress. When presented to President Bush, he finally exercised the very first veto of his presidency. (President Bush was noted for not exercising his veto power.) The bill was returned to Congress where in the House, his veto was upheld when 193 members voted in favor. (A two-third’s vote is needed to override a presidential veto.8) Was your representative one of the courageous 193?
It is not unusual to pick up a mainline newspaper or magazine and read that our present administration is against ESC research. That is not true. It is not the research, but the funding of the research that is being denied. Prior to 2001, funding for ESC research was nonexistent. When President Bush took office, his administration allowed over $90 million for ESC research, but only on ESC lines derived from embryos that had already been destroyed. Funding was denied for live embryos.
Election results of November 2006 may very well change all that. The new speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has included ESC research into the Democratic Party agenda. Attempts are underway to reverse President Bush’s veto. Proponents believe that “all known maladies will be cured” if more federal dollars are used for research.
The political debate continues despite the study published in the respected scientific journal, Nature Biotechnology,9 that strongly indicated that cells from amniotic fluid collected during pregnancy could have many embryonic stem cell properties and do not require destruction of embryos. The amniotic fluid cells were described as pluripotent. The senior author of the study reported that, “So far, we’ve been successful with every cell type we’ve attempted to produce from these stem cells.” More and more articles are showing up in scientific periodicals that pluripotent cells can be produced without destroying human embryos. Do politicians who support ESC research have some other agenda, such as possibly seeking contributions from Hollywood celebrities? It is public record that entertainment industry celebrities are staunch supporters of ESC research.
A Suggested Personal Action Plan
Catholics should clearly understand the immoral and unethical implications of ESC research. What is our responsibility to familiarize ourselves with all aspects of the general field of stem cell research? There are many sources of information on morally acceptable stem cell research. For one, the National Right to Life News has a DVD by Drs. Wanda and Gunter Franz on stem cells and cloning which is excellent in explaining the basic biology of stem cells. Second, Catholics can inform family and friends about all aspects of stem cell research to give them a better understanding of the issues. Third, Catholics should inform themselves on the views of their elected officials, local, state and federal. Let your representatives know that ESC re- (cont’d on p. 22) research is a totally unacceptable program and why! Fourth, actively support both scientific and political programs of reason that consider the ethical and moral aspects of the subject.
The future remains unclear as to what steps will be taken regarding embryos and stem cell research. The major ethical and moral concerns as to whether the political part of the subject will really change to a new course remains to be seen. Is the juggernaut too powerful to stop? Will taxpayer dollars be committed to the unethical research side? Or, will calmer heads prevail? We are at the doorstep of entering a new period of interesting prospects, good or bad! Whatever decisions are made, they will profoundly affect generations to come.
1 Drs. Wanda and Gunter Franz, National Right to Life, “Stem Cell & Cloning,” DVD, 2006.
2 Crisis, September 2006, pp. 9-15, “How to Talk to Democrats About Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” by Eric Pavlat.
3 Right to Life of Michigan Production, “Addressing Human Embryonic Cell Research.”
4 U.S. News & World Report, 5/21/07, p. 59,” The Gift of a Cure,” by Deborah Kotz.
5 Michael Fumento, Crisis, September 2006, p. 12, “How To Talk To Democrats about Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” by Eric Pavlat.
6 National Catholic Register, September 2006, p. 6, “Defending the Holy Grail of Life,” by Jose Simon Castellvi.