Another Possible Stem Cell Alternative

New research has revealed results that may be great news in the on-going struggle to protect the unborn from being destroyed in the name of science for the benefits of others. In an article published in Channel NewsAsia entitled Progress in cloned stem cells could defuse ethics storm: studies, scientists report using mouse skin cells to create cells that serve the same function for mice as embryonic stem cells would serve. According to the article:

Doctors on Thursday will report lab techniques that, they hope, will ease an ethical row clouding the eagerly-sought goal of cloned embryonic stem cells.

In one study, US scientists say they reprogrammed normal tissue cells in mice to mimic the properties of embryonic stem cells, an advance that could lead to breakthrough treatments for chronic and terminal diseases in humans.

"Our reprogrammed cells were virtually indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells," said Kathrin Plath, researcher at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"We were rather surprised at how well this reprogramming worked," she said.

If replicated in humans, the method would eliminate the need to harvest human embryos to generate stem cells. The Catholic Church and other Christian activists fiercely oppose using human embryos for research.

And because the cells originate from the recipient, tissue rejection would no longer be a concern, said the study published in the inaugural issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell.

This is new research, but in some respects it is nothing new. There are many types of possible alternatives to embryonic stem cells that are constantly being discovered. In January 2007, it was discovered that stem cells found in amniotic fluid may possibly produce the same type of advantages that embryonic stem cells are hoped (not promised) to produce without killing any embryos in the process. In November 2006, it was reported that "virus-mediated delivery of the gene encoding an enzyme called PC 1/3 improved the glucose-stimulated insulin secretion of pancreatic islet cells" meaning that what appears to be a successful alternative to embryonic stem cells had been developed for treating patients with Type I diabetes. In October 2006, it was reported that delivery of "adult neural stem/progenitor cells along with a myelin-derived peptide into the spinal fluid of mice and found that they promoted the functional recovery of the spinal cord after injury". In other words, another possible embryonic stem cell alternative had been discovered. I could keep going.

The alternatives to embryonic stem cells keep cropping up. It is, of course, true that these alternatives are all still in the testing stage and further testing may establish that none of them may offer to fulfill the potential that embryonic stem cells are supposed to offer. But that is part of the problem. People see the shortcomings of the alternatives because the alternatives are reported as needing further research, but interestingly embryonic stem cells are not reported in the same way. Here's an example from the same news as reported by Malcolm Ritter of the Associated Press as it appears in my morning newspaper:

In a leap forward for stem cell research, three independent teams of scientists reported Wednesday that they have produced the equivalent of embryonic stem cells in mice using skin cells without the controversial destruction of embryos.

If the same could be done with human skin cells -- a big if -- the procedure could lead to breakthrough medical treatments without the contentious ethical and political debates surrounding the use of the embryos.

The last paragraph is subtle, but by noting that there is a "big if" involved, it communicates quite clearly that there is no clear data that demonstrates that the same procedure could be worked on human skin cells to create the equivalent of embryonic stem cells. But did you catch that the medical treatments that embryonic stem cells are supposed to provide are equally unproven? If you didn't, it's understandable. The "big if" language highlights the unproven nature of the latest research when applied to humans, but no such language accompanies the statement that these procedure "could lead to breakthrough medical treatments".

The truth is that there is no promise that embryonic stem cells will provide any treatments at all -- only an informed hope. To be accurate, the second paragraph should read: "If the same could be done with human skin cells -- a big if -- the procedure could lead to breakthrough medical treatments -- another big if -- without the contentious ethical and political debates surrounding the killing of human embryos which is required to obtain embryonic stem cells."

Of course, the findings will not change opinions in the halls of Congress where the House of Representatives is again seeking to put another bill in front of President Bush which will free up federal funds to further embryonic stem cell research. Given the alternatives that are cropping up that appear to offer sane and ethically undisturbing ways to obtain the same types of cells for doing research, why does Congress feel it necessary to press forward with the killing of unborn human beings to engage in scientific research?

An article by Rick Weiss of the Washington Post entitled Mouse stem cells created without destroying embryos provides the justification:

The findings generated tumult on Capitol Hill, where the House is set to vote today on a bill that would loosen President Bush’s 2001 restrictions on the use of human embryos in stem cell research. The Senate has already passed the bill, which Bush has threatened to veto.

Acutely aware that their new work could undermine the bill, scientists cautioned that their success with mouse cells does not guarantee quick success with human cells. They called for legislators to pass the bill, which would give federally funded researchers access to embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics.

So, the scientists want funding. Is that the bottom line? It seems like an awfully callous reason to end the lives of human beings. They don't want the embryos to go to waste because they will be destroyed anyway? That argument would appear to justify killing comatose patients whose organs could be harvested for transplants.

It simply seems to me that if alternatives are being developed to embryonic stem cell research that may offer the equivalent to the benefits that are hoped (but not promised) to be obtained from killing embryos for their stem cells but which don't require the killing of anyone or anything to accomplish what appears to be the same purpose, civilized people should support waiting to see if the new research can produce stem cells in humans that can be used for the same research without the ethically wrong killing of human beings.


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