Stem Cell Research

By: Steve Bundy

Stem cell research is done in a laboratory, a public place, not in a bedroom. Therefore, it requires public discussion and clarification. However, the mainstream media has done more to muddy the issues than to clarify them. The result is that the average American is deeply confused about the nature of stem cell research and its implications for society. A recent study conducted by the Ethics and Public Policy Center reveals that the public lacks knowledge of the most basic facts regarding stem cell research. For instance, 69% of those polled support stem cell research, but only 17% of the respondents said they were very familiar with the topic. When asked whether adult or embryonic stem cell research has yielded any therapeutic results, only 23% answered that question correctly; that is, only adult stem cells have offered any effective therapeutic results. With regard to the use of embryonic stem cell for the treatment of disease, 54% of the respondents agreed that the cost of disease outweigh the costs associated with the destruction of human embryos. But, when asked if an embryo is a developing human life that should not be destroyed for research purposes, 62% of those polled agreed.

We wholeheartedly support stem cell research. Stem cells hold great promise for the treatment of many diseases and injuries. It is the source of stem cells which concern us. It matters morally how they are attained. In other words, method matters. Ends do not always justify means. Thus, we find morally objectionable embryonic stem cell research because it destroys the life of a human person. From conception, a human being is a human person and we have an obligation to respect and protect that life. This is not merely a religious claim that has no basis in reality. This is not merely a Christian claim, but a truth claim. There is strong biblical, ethical, and scientific evidence to support the idea that there is no such thing as a human non-person.

Biblical: All human beings are made in God’s image. The Bible makes no distinction between a human being and a human person. God knows all from inside the womb (Ps.139). David Novak points out that Gen. 9:6 makes clear that “Whosoever sheds human blood, by humans shall his blood be shed” refers not to the human judges who are to execute murders but to a human life that is still contained within another human life—that is, the body of his or her mother.

Moral/Ethical: To be a human person is to possess an essential human nature. The zygote/embryo possesses an essentially human nature; therefore, they are human persons. To possess an essential human nature is to be a human person. Essence precedes function. Therefore, we are morally obligated to protect life from its conception.

Scientific: Neurobiologist Maureen Condic, Senior Fellow at the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, has forcefully argued that based on universally accepted scientific criteria, the human zygote/embryo comes into existence at the moment of sperm/egg fusion, an event that occurs in less than a second. Upon formation, the zygote immediately initiates a complex sequence of events that establish the conditions require for embryo development. The behavior of a zygote is radically unlike that of either sperm or egg and is characteristic of a human organism. Thus, human life begins at conception. In light of these facts, the most important person involved in embryonic stem cell research is the embryo itself. The embryo in this circumstance is victim to a horrible injustice. Therefore embryonic stem cell research is both a theological and philosophical issue.

We want to draw attention to the many successes of stem cells which have been drawn from other sources such as skin cells, bone marrow and umbilical cord blood. Adult stem cell treatments have shown great promise in treating a wide range of illnesses including juvenile diabetes, leukemia, lymphoma and other blood disorders. Little such success has been achieved with embryonic stem cells. And it is not for lack of funding. Since 2002, an abundant of resources has been earmarked for such embryonic stem cell research. In 2006, the NIH, for instance, reported that more than eighty projects for embryonic stem cell research have been funded in the past five years.

We should all be skeptical of how quickly the FDA has approved human clinical trials using embryonic stem cells which are set to begin this summer. There are at least three reasons to warrant such skepticism:

1) Only one research lab has had clinical success in rats and stands to profit from funding in investments.

2) Very little time was given to demonstrate safety and efficacy before moving to human trials.

3) We are very skeptical of the timing of this trial: the same week that Obama takes office.

In light of all that has been said, we are very disappointed that Obama has lifted the federal ban on embryonic stem cell research. With such limited resources available to us, this only takes the focus away from adult stem cell research and all its successes. With regard to these successes, consider the following example. In the late Fall of 2007, research groups in Japan and the US have shown that human skin cells can be coaxed into behaving like embryonic stem cells by a process called direct reprogramming. Like embryonic stem cells, these reprogrammed cells are capable of becoming any cell in the human body. These cells are technically called induced pluripotent stem cells because they are capable of differentiating into all cell types. This is in contrast to multipotent cells which some researchers claim are limited in this capacity. But there is little hard evidence which supports this claim.

In March 2009, researchers reported that they had found a safer way to transform skin cells into stem cells, an approach which might make it unnecessary to pursue embryonic stem cells. Researchers have known for quite some time that skin cells could be transformed into pluripotent stem cells by using a few genes. Presently viruses are used to transport these genes into the cells. The problem with this technique is that the viruses' own genetic material integrate into these cells too. This can cause cancer. 

The new approach, discovered by two researchers from Britain and Canada and discussed in the online journal Nature, seems to avoid the risk for cancerous abnormalities. These researchers used a little piece of DNA, sometimes called the "jumping gene," in order to transport the genes. The technique is called piggyBac and has been used by researchers to modify several organisms.

This raises the question concerning why adult stem cell research is not drawing the same kind of attention as embryonic stem cell research. If there are such advancements in stem cells derived from other sources, why are they not discussed in the mainstream media? One of the reasons why it is not highlighted in the mainstream media is that precious few people understand the differences between adult and embryonic stem cells. Many of the reporters do not even understand the differences. Second, the media are constantly looking for a controversial story, and embryonic stem cell research is fraught with ethical issues.

Finally, there is another fundamental reason why researchers want to study embryonic stems besides the immediate cure of disease. Insoo Hyun states that, "Embryonic stem cells are necessary for several aims of scientific and biomedical research. They include addressing fundamental questions in developmental biology, such as how primitive cells differentiate into more specialized cells and how different organ systems first come into being. By increasing our knowledge of human development, embryonic stem cells may also help us better understand the causes of fetal deformations."

From both a Christian and scientific perspective, stem cells produced from direct reprogramming offers several advantages. First and foremost, they do not destroy innocent human life. Second, they have a tremendous ability to produce patient-specific stem cell lines for research on genetic diseases. Third, unlike the theoretical patientspecific stem cells from cloned embryos, these cells are available right now. Fourth, they are simpler to produce than embryonic stem cells which requires scarce, difficult to attain human eggs for research.

Adult stem cells hold promise for future treatment of many debilitating diseases. They will help to improve, repair, and maintain human life because they cooperate with the body’s natural healing capacities. This research is safe, ethical, and extremely promising. Real cures are in reach right now and it is unethical to keep families with disabilities waiting unnecessarily. This raises the question concerning why more media attention is not given to the successes in adult stem cell research. One of the main reasons is that any success using stem cells from adult tissues (which are readily available and inexpensive to harvest) threatens pharmaceutical profits and long-term basic research funding. Adult stem cell research is often overlooked because it is less commercially viable.

For more information concerning the medical conditions which are currently being treated using adult stem cells, please visit, www.stemcellresearch.org. For more information concerning the ethics of stem cell research, please visit the following websites:

The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity: www.cbhd.org
The Family Research Council: www.frc.org

Sources

Maureen Condic, What We Know about Embryonic Stem Cells, www.westchesterinstitute.net.
Insoo Hyun, “Stem Cells,” The Hastings Center Bioethics Briefing Book, www.thehastingscenter.org.
David Novak, The Sanctity of Human Life (Washington D.C., Georgetown University Press, 2007).

For interviews or further information about the Christian Institute on Disability, please contact:
Steven Bundy, 
Managing Director of the Christian Institute on Disability