Cutting Edge

March 2-8, 2006
Cutting Edge
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
Syracuse can be a Leader in Umbilical Cord Blood Research

Can civilization barter its conscience for the sake of progress, even if such progress projects medical benefits? Over the course of the past several years, the debate has sallied back and forth across the political spectrum as to whether or not it is ethical to use stem cells culled from human embryos.

Whether or not embryonic stem cells can be used to cure diseases or other illnesses is subject to debate but certainly the means by which they are obtained carries problematic ethical implications: in order to obtain embryonic stem cells, the living human embryo must be sacrificed.

Therefore, the Catholic Church is opposed to any such research considering the terrible price it exacts. Fortunately, an option that few can question has emerged: umbilical cord stem cells.

A stem cell is a cell that can regenerate as the same type of cell or have its composition altered into other types of cells. They can be used to supplant or repair damaged cells in humans. Stem cells are generally divided into two broad categories including embryonic and adult types, the latter being any type of stem cell derived from someone born. In contrast to the embryonic stem cells, which are drawn from destroyed embryos such as those stored in fertility clinics or those created through cloning, adult stem cells are derived from such sources as the umbilical cord, the placenta, bone marrow, and many other places in the adult body, even in human fat.

Catholic pro-life activists have long called for umbilical cord stem-cell use as an alternative to using embryonic stem cells. Recently, advances were made in the New York State Senate to turn Syracuse into a hub for umbilical cord blood research.

Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) is sponsoring bill number S.5999-A, which would finance education and an awareness campaign dedicated to umbilical cord stem cells and their benefits. (The language of the bill can be obtained at http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?bn=S05999&sh=t) The New York State Senator has also been part of an effort to bring a cord blood bank to Syracuse. While New York City is home to the New York Blood Center, the largest cord blood bank in the world, there is no bank available in Upstate New York.

DeFrancisco stressed that in contrast to embryonic stem cells, this kind of stem cell is weighted with far less controversy. “This is basically medical waste and no one can argue with it,” the state senator said. The legislator became aware of cord-blood therapy about a year and a half ago and has been a staunch proponent of it ever since. He cited the specific instance of 8-year-old Syracuse resident Jared Saya, who survived blood cancer because of a transplant using cord blood, as evidence of the medical benefits of umbilical cord blood.

DeFrancisco introduced the bill Oct. 28, 2005. More recently, Gov. George Pataki added $250,000 to the current budget to be allocated to targeting a location for the bank, likely in the Syracuse area. DeFrancisco said that within the week he plans to meet with the governor in order to iron out concrete plans for the facility. The state senator hopes that $10 million will be included in this year’s budget for developing such a facility. “We want to have the groundwork in place for a facility,” DeFrancisco said. “We owe Senator John DeFransico a great deal of gratitude for lobbying Governor Pataki to include $250,000 in the budget to establish CNY Cord Blood Center at SUNY Upstate,” said Cindy Falise, director of the Syracuse Diocese’s Respect Life Office. “Umbilical cord blood contains a rich source of stem cells that are proven to stimulate ‘medical miracles.’”

Gov. Pataki has been very enthusiastic about the medical implications of cord blood stem cells. “The governor’s office has been extremely supportive of this,” the state senator said. At the national level, President George W. Bush signed into law the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005 which commits $265 million to stem cell therapy, cord blood and bone marrow transplants. The argument posited by researchers who want to use embryonic stem cells is that they want to explore every possible avenue.

“Science wants to go anywhere it wants to go. The nature of science is that it wants to push the envelope,” said Kathleen Gallagher, the director of New York State Catholic Conference’s Pro-Life Activities Office. The other argument such researchers offer is that embryonic stem cells can replicate every cell in the body, whereas adult stem cells can’t necessarily do that. However, researchers at Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in the Archdiocese of Boston may have identified adult stem cells with the capacity to repair and regenerate multiple kinds of tissue. Such a cell would further weaken the case for embryonic stem-cell research.

Gallagher pointed out that while Catholic institutions have been characterized as stodgy and repressive when it comes to medical research, many have, in fact, been at the forefront of the field. She uses the developments at Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center as an example of how such institutions have introduced innovations to medicine. “Catholic institutions are on the cutting edge of umbilical cord research,” she said. Another Catholic institution, the New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., has broken new ground in the field of adult stem-cell research, using them to repair damaged heart tissue.

In contrast, an experimental treatment in which embryonic cells were implanted in Parkinson’s disease sufferers recently backfired for 15 percent of them when the patients began to demonstrate uncontrollable body movements.

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