Right-thinking research

New stem cell research offers one more ethical alternative to embryonic research

By Luke Eggleston
SUN Staff Writer

Stem cell research made a galactic leap last November when James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin and Shinya Yamanaka of the University of Kyoto, Japan, published papers that both offered a new ethical alternative to embryonic stem cell research.

The Catholic Church opposes therapies employing embryonic stem cells because of its most basic and sacred belief in the intrinsic value and dignity of life. Also embryonic stem cell treatments would almost certainly utilize cloning to increase the number of embryos needed for research. The church teaches that new life is formed in the context of marriage and procreation, not in a laboratory.

The church is, however, enthusiastic about the potential of alternatives such as stem cells derived from adult tissue or from umbilical cord blood.

“The church is not opposed to research,” Syracuse Diocese Director of the Respect Life Office Lisa Hall said. “We want to help people. We want to treat people.”

Church teaching instructs Catholics that they must respect both the embryo as well as the ill or injured person and that the end does not justify an evil means.

When the research teams from Wisconsin and Japan released their findings, church officials were enthusiastic.

Within one week, the Vatican issued its own statement on the development.

Catholic News Service reported on Nov. 27 that Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, had voiced the Vatican’s support for the new development.

The bishop said that the researchers’ findings demonstrated that stem cell research need not rely on unethical sources for cells.

“The church conducted this battle for ethical reasons, encouraging researchers to move ahead with adult stem cells and declaring illicit the destruction of embryos,” the Catholic News Service quoted the bishop as saying. “Ethics that respect the human being is useful in research.”

The New York State Catholic Conference issued a statement the day the research hit the Internet.

“Today marks the dawn of a new age for ethical scientific research,” said Kathleen Gallagher, the conference’s director of pro-life activities. “This breakthrough announced in two scientific journals appears to solve the ethical dilemmas of embryonic stem cell research and human cloning by eliminating the need for them. Instead, by simply adding four genes to an existing skin cell, the cell can be reprogrammed as a ‘pluripotenet’ stem cell. The process appears to be easier, more cost efficient, scientifically promising and morally untroubling.”

In separate experiments conducted on different continents, both researchers noticed that by adding four genes to human skin cells, they were able to create stem cells that can become any cell in the human body. Essentially, a person could donate his own stem cells to himself. The new varieties of stem cells are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).

Mauren Condic, an associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, and Dr. Markus Grompe, the director of the Oregon Stem Cell Center and professor in the Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics at the Oregon Health Sciences University, compiled an explanation of iPSC research for “Do No Harm, the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics.”

“Unlike embryonic stem cells, which are obtained by destroying live embryos, iPSCs are made directly from adult cells by adding a small number of factors to these cells in the laboratory,” the experts explained in the release. “These factors remodel mature cells and convert them into stem cells that are functionally identical to stem cells obtained from embryos.”

The cells can be drawn from a small biopsy of a patient’s skin. According to the report, one study was able to draw 10 stem cell lines from a single skin biopsy.

The experts continued, “This approach can be used to generate stem cell lines from patients with specific genetic diseases to better study these conditions, and to provide patients with specific stem cells for possible stem cell therapies.”

In December 2007, a research team from Harvard confirmed Yamanaka and Thomson’s findings, publishing them in the online journal Nature.

The church continues to advocate the development of treatments that are derived from adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood. The new stem cell procedure has the potential to treat even more people without the worry of rejection by the recipient with a process that could be supported by all.

Previously, critics of treatments that utilize cord-blood derived cells or adult stem cells said that they did not have the flexibility that embryonic stem cells potentially had. The new development would enable the generated cell to become any of the 220 cell types found in the human body.

In the same statement released by the NYSCC, Gallagher urged New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer’s Empire State Stem Cell Board to commit all of its state funding into research utilizing the new procedure. She stressed that the NYSCC continues to support research on adult stem cells, which have already demonstrated their therapeutic use in treating diseases and disabilities.

The NYSCC remains gravely concerned about the governor’s staunchly pro-embryonic stance and the fact that New York taxpayers are footing the bill for the research.

In January, the state awarded $14.5 million in grants to 25 medical institutions. The money for the grants was derived from $600 million the governor has committed to stem cell research. Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the NYSCC, said that the grants were directed toward a number of research facilities. Many of those facilities are engaged in embryonic stem cell research as well as adult stem cell research. Poust said that the conference is unaware of whether or not any of the funding would go toward the new stem cell research.

It is important to note that the potential for iPSC research is not without its critics. In the Jan. 11, 2008 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Humphrey reported that scientists point out that iPSCs still have no practical value. In order to generate the cells, Yamanaka’s team had to utilize retroviruses.

In their summary explanation for Do No Harm, Condic and Grompe noted both studies “strongly indicate that reprogramming requires only transient expression of the manipulated factors, suggesting that these factors could be supplied by other means that do not require viral integration into the cell’s DNA.”

Hall explained that many of the wrinkles in iPSC research are simply a product of its novelty. Condic and Grompe explained that these problems will be ironed out as research proceeds.

“This is extremely new science,” Hall said. “So while there are still concerns, it helps to eliminate the ethical questions of embryonic stem cell research. We need to remember that the treatment value of embryonic stem cell research is still theoretical as well.”

While many researchers still believe embryonic stem cells have the most therapeutic potential, Catholic advocates for life are quick to point out that adult stem cells and cord blood stem cells are the only varieties with a proven track record of treating disease and injury.

Most notably, adult stem cells have been used in bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia as well as to treat Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, sickle cell anemia, heart damage and damage to the eyes.

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