The degree of respect and value to be given a human embryo has always been a complex and controversial issue. Even more so now, since some researchers are experimenting with embryos and are diligently pushing for federal funding.
Some believe stem cells can "morph" into virtually every kind of tissue, producing a potentially bottomless source of human replacement parts.
But is it ever right to manipulate the building blocks of life itself with biotechnology? Is it OK to use embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization for research that could potentially hold cures for diseases and spinal-cord injuries?
Creating custom-made embryos in the lab for research raises more questions. This research has divided members of President Bush's own party as well as the scientific community with religious leaders. Pope John Paul II spoke out vehemently against embryonic stem-cell research.
But what about types of research, such as using stem cells derived from adults?
Seeking expert answers, Our Sunday Visitor interviewed Dr. Keith L. March, director of the Indiana Center for Vascular Biology and Medicine. March graduated from college at 15 with a dual degree in chemistry and biology in 1979. He received a combined medical degree and doctorate at 21.
As director of the center, he heads up a team that develops revolutionary medical therapies, devices, drugs and genetic interventions.
Our Sunday Visitor: What compelled you to become interested in stem-cell research?
Dr. Keith L. March: As a practicing cardiologist, my research interests have always focused on blood-vessel diseases. I wanted to find a way to use cells with regenerative capabilities that could be found in abundance and were taken from the patients' own cells, thus posing no risk of rejection and importantly, avoiding moral or ethical concerns with their use.
OSV: Do you find your fellow researchers receptive to pursuing other options of research besides embryonic stem-cell initiatives?
March: Many of my colleagues are actively pursuing stem cells from adult sources because of the track record of success with such cells.
OSV: What diseases are most likely to be helped with adult stem-cell research and why?
March: Leukemias, anemias and cancer are already being treated successfully with therapies using umbilical-cord-blood-derived stem cells. Our center is currently conducting the only FDA-approved clinical trial using a patient's stem cells derived from bone marrow.
Stroke, Parkinson's disease, spinal-cord injury, diabetes and cancer are other key targets for treatment. Intensive cell biology research is needed to learn about how and why this happens.
OSV: Why is adult stem-cell research more promising right now over embryonic stem-cell research? What are the advances in adult stem-cell research?
March: Adult stem cells are readily available, in some cases easy to procure, such as those found in the fat, skin and bone marrow.
They are not potentially subject to immune rejection, as cells obtained from the patient rather than an unrelated random embryo donor.
They are already somewhat specialized and are poised to repair disease within the body; embryonic stem cells are poised to create an embryo. No embryonic cell-based therapies have been demonstrated to produce results in patients.
Umbilical-cord-blood transfusions were initially used in the early 1990s to treat Fanconi's anemia in children, a life-threatening condition. These sources of stem cells have great potential to treat a variety of other blood disorders.
OSV: What role does your faith play in your research?
March: I am a practicing Catholic and try to integrate my faith into all aspects of my life. I have a strong commitment to working at the leading edge of scientific innovation in an effort to improve and preserve human life at all stages.
I am highly motivated to bring novel and effective therapies to patients as rapidly as possible, and equally committed to working with cell sources that do not involve human life at its embryonic stage.
OSV: Do you see a debate among your peers over the ethics of embryonic stem-cell research or is it a non-issue?
March: I think that the debate over embryonic stem-cell research is active among the scientific community as well as within the lay public.
OSV: What do you think the big push is for embryonic stem-cell research with some researchers over adult stem-cell research?
March: It is believed that stem cells from human embryos can potentially provide endless supplies of cells with desired characteristics. It is also believed that there are quantities of human embryos that are available from in-vitro fertilization clinics that would otherwise be frozen indefinitely.
Adult stem cells have already been used successfully. If efforts were focused on cells from adult sources, scientists would have a jumpstart on finding cures for life-threatening diseases.
OSV: Why do you feel the public isn't informed about the advances in adult stem-cell research?
March: Stem-cell research has become a lightning rod for controversy. People have taken sides. The lay public is mostly unaware of the differences between stem cells derived from adult sources and those for embryos. The media likes to fuel controversy, making it a political issue rather than a scientific one.
OSV: What do you think the public should know about stem-cell research?
March: There are distinct types of "stem cells" and distinct sources for their derivation. Adult stem cells have already proven effective in treating diseases. Their potential for treating a broader range of diseases is very promising, growing daily.
OSV: Do you think the continued success in the area of adult stem-cell research would essentially put an end to this major ethical debate by eliminating the need for research on embryonic stem cells?
March: I think that a group of scientists will likely want to continue to push research efforts forward on embryo cell fronts with the goal of finding cures no matter what is achieved in other areas.
I feel that adult stem-cell research is significantly advanced toward patients, compared with research using embryonic stem cells, therefore more likely to achieve results more quickly. Directing financial resources to support adult stem-cell research is one key way to accelerate success. The source for stem cells that proves most effective at treating patients will win the "race" to therapy.
Donna Cooper O'Boyle is the author of "Catholic Prayer Book for Mothers" (OSV, $6.95). She writes from Connecticut.