by Richard M. Doerflinger
June 30, 2005
The battle lines of the stem cell debate have become familiar.
In one corner we have embryonic stem cells, obtained by destroying one-week-old human embryos. The cells are "pluripotent," capable of producing all the 210 cell types in the human body. In the other corner are stem cells obtained harmlessly from adult tissues, umbilical cord blood and placentas. These pose no ethical problem, but supposedly are more limited.
Herein lies the alleged tension between science and ethics:. We can cure devastating diseases, or respect embryonic human life, but not both.
That dichotomy has always been misleading. Embryonic stem cells are far from curing any disease, while adult and umbilical cord blood stem cells have helped many thousands of patients. Yet scientists still claim that cells obtained by destroying early human life have special advantages that cannot be duplicated.
This claim is about to be tested.
Just before Congress's July 4 recess, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) introduced the "Respect for Life Pluripotent Stem Cell Act." It instructs the National Institutes of Health to fund research in obtaining "pluripotent" stem cells without creating or harming human embryos.
Mr. Bartlett knows whereof he speaks. He holds a Ph.D. in physiology, and bases his proposal on a report by the President's Council on Bioethics and the latest research findings.
His bill outlines two ways to get pluripotent stem cells without harming embryos. One is to remove the cells from embryos without harming or destroying them. The bill would fund such efforts in animal embryos, to see if this can be safe enough to consider doing in humans.
The other approach would produce embryo-like stem cells without creating embryos at all. A dozen studies now indicate that umbilical cord blood and adult tissues contain stem cells that may be as versatile as embryonic stem cells. In addition, cutting-edge research suggests that adult cells can be "reprogrammed" in several ways into pluripotent stem cells.
One avenue is dubbed "ANT-OAR" – altered nuclear transfer by oocyte assisted reprogramming.
"Nuclear transfer" is the cloning method that made Dolly the sheep. The nucleus of a body cell is combined with an egg deprived of its own nucleus. Signals in the egg activate a much wider range of genes in that nucleus, so it no longer directs one specialized type of cell but begins the development of a whole new organism. What if the egg and the body cell were altered in advance so that, from the beginning, the result is not a one-celled embryo, but a pluripotent stem cell like those now obtained by destroying embryos?
There are good scientific reasons to believe this can be done. And many Catholic scientists and ethicists have declared that it can and should be explored (see www.eppc.org/news/newsid.2375/news_detail.asp).
It would be good news indeed if modern science ends up resolving some moral dilemmas that an irresponsible use of science has created. Rep. Bartlett and his colleagues are helping to demonstrate what has always been true: science and ethics were meant to be allies, not enemies.
Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.