By Mary DeTurris Poust
Scientists in Wisconsin and Japan recently announced the discovery of a method of creating embryonic-type stem cells without creating or destroying human embryos, a breakthrough that is being hailed as having the potential to end the divisive debate over embryonic stem cell research. Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about the newest advance in stem cell research.
Our Sunday Visitor: This breakthrough is being touted as something that could very well render embryonic stem cell research unnecessary and obsolete. Could you explain this new advance and what makes it so significant?
Father Tad Pacholczyk: Currently, in terms of treating human patients, we have a number of treatments available using adult stem cells. We do not have any corresponding treatments available using embryonic stem cells. In other words, all current treatments come from either umbilical cords or other sources like bone marrow stem cells.
Embryonic stem cell research, in terms of its ability to provide clinical benefits, remains a speculative project. Nevertheless, there is intense interest in the embryonic variety of stem cells because these cells could give you a good deal of information about how an animal builds its own body plan.
There is no moral or ethical problem with using embryonic stem cells as long as they come from animals and not from humans. But as soon as you talk about using human embryos, you run into intractable moral objections. Now you must destroy another human being in order to do your research, and that is an inherently unjust proposal.
So the two papers published recently announced that the kind of stem cell that you obtain from destroying human embryos appears to be available by another technique, and this other technique involves transferring four genes into regular old garden-variety skin cells and causing them to transmute into pluripotent stem cells -- pluripotent just meaning this very flexible variety of stem cells that is associated with the embryo. As far as we can tell, the cells that you get this way are equivalent in virtually every respect to those that you would get out of embryos.
OSV: In addition to being morally and ethically acceptable, doesn't this new breakthrough also bring with it medical and scientific benefits that embryonic stem cells cannot provide?
Father Pacholczyk: This process that has been developed does provide patient-specific stem cells. What that means is that you use a patient's own skin cells as a starting point for the procedure, turn those skin cells into stem cells, and then, of course, you could put them back into the patient and there would not be any immune consequences because they are his own cells, just slightly modified. So this gets around the problem of what we call "therapeutic cloning." Therapeutic cloning is also a procedure that would give you patient-specific stem cells in theory, but it has never worked in humans. It involves taking a woman's egg, transferring a nucleus from a regular skin cell of, for example, a man into that woman's egg and creating an embryo. That embryo would be the identical twin of the man. You then destroy his identical twin brother in order to get stem cells that could then be transplanted back into the man. All of that is done away with by this advance, which is a technically simpler procedure that does not necessitate any women's eggs, does not necessitate the creation of human life nor the destruction of that life.
OSV: Do you expect to see factions within the scientific community continuing to push for further advances in embryonic stem cell research despite this breakthrough?
Father Pacholczyk: Yes, I do, because the way that this entire discourse has been playing out in our midst is that the scientists who advocate the destruction of human embryos have never taken the moral concerns seriously. They consider these moral concerns to be little more than a religious, fringe view of things. The first creed of many such scientists is the creed of the scientific imperative -- namely, that science must go forward, and this is the highest good. It must be able to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants, whenever it wants, and nobody should be bringing their ethical viewpoints to limit what researchers do.
That, of course, is a completely untenable position to hold, because we regulate what scientists do all the time. The very mechanism by which we disperse federal money puts all kinds of checks and balances on what they can do. And there are certain kinds of research like germ-warfare research or research into building nuclear bombs that the government strictly regulates and very few scientists are even permitted to get into.
So, we regulate scientists all the time, and this idea that we have to allow science to do whatever it wants is a bit of pie in the sky. Unfortunately, you have scientists who try to argue for that, and those are the scientists who will be saying that we have to allow every option, every avenue, even unethical ones, to go forward.
OSV: Do you think this recent breakthrough would have been likely -- or likely this quickly -- had there been unrestricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research?
Father Pacholczyk: I think that the restrictions on funding have had an effect on how scientists approached this question, because federal funding is always seen as a form of approbation and blessing. Any time you get federal funding for something, there is a kind of "sanctioning" that occurs. And when the federal government refuses to fund something, it becomes a kind of dark spot on the entire field. That has been the practical effect, and I do suspect that because of that dark spot there has been a greater willingness to entertain alternative approaches.
OSV: It seems that even the scientists involved in embryonic stem cell research are acknowledging that this new development could end the moral and ethical quandary created by embryonic stem cell research. Are you surprised by that?
Father Pacholczyk: When you read the comments from many of the most well-known embryonic stem cell researchers, you clearly get the sense that they do understand the importance of this. The paper by Dr. James Thomson is a clear verification of this. His laboratory was the laboratory that first succeeded in isolating human embryonic stem cells. And he has always been one of the biggest promoters of embryonic stem cell research, and I think he still will be.
But he also saw the importance of this, so much so that he took part of his own laboratory and had a number of researchers studying this, because he realized the many kinds of practical benefits that would come from this. He probably also realized that there would be ethical benefits as well.
OSV: Are there any other advances in this field that you're watching at this point?
Father Pacholczyk: In this whole area, this breakthrough has been something of a Holy Grail. This is probably the most significant of the alternative approaches that were under consideration. The fact that it worked, technically, is striking and really kind of captures the imagination in terms of the possible future applications that it might ultimately engender.
Mary DeTurris Poust is a contributing editor to OSV.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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