Health Care

Stem Cell Breakthrough Could Make Ethical Debate Moot

| by Baptist Press

By Michael Foust, Baptist Press assistant editor

WASHINGTON -- A bill that would drastically expand federal funding for
embryonic stem cell research has been re-introduced in the Senate, but British
and Canadian researchers announced a scientific breakthrough March 2 that could
change the course of stem cell research and eventually make the ethical debate
moot.

As detailed in the research journal Nature, the researchers found a
safer way to reprogram ordinary human skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells.
While a 2007 study by Japanese and American researchers did something very
similar, the British and Canadian researchers did it without the use of a virus,
which the '07 teams had used to complete the process. Researchers feared the use
of viruses to turn the skin cells into the stem cells could cause cancer in
patients.

Stem cells are the body's master cells that can develop into
other cells and tissues, and they have the potential for leading to cures for
diseases and other ailments.

"It is a step towards the practical use of
reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human
embryos as a source of stem cells," one of the researchers, Keisuke Kaji of the
University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian newspaper. "This new method will
advance the field of regenerative medicine and should help understand diseases
and test new drugs."

With viruses no longer needed, the newer method has
the potential to produce a limitless supply of safe embryonic-like stem cells --
which are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) -- but in a manner that
is ethically acceptable to pro-lifers.

Prior to the announcement of the
new method in 2007, the phrase "pluriopotent" -- which refers to a stem cell
that can develop into all of the different cell types in the body -- was
reserved only for embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells, also referred to as
non-embryonic stem cells, typically have been regarded as "multipotent," meaning
they can form many, though not all, of the body's cell types.

The British
and Canadian study, which involved researchers at the University of Edinburgh
and Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, means scientists in the U.S. could produce
pluripotent stem cells without the use of embryos. Embryonic stem cell research
requires the destruction of the tiny human beings. The newest research also has
a practical benefit: By using skin cells, scientists can produce essentially an
unlimited supply of pluripotent skin cells. With federally funded embryonic stem
cell research, scientists would be limited by the number of available embryos --
unless they were to use therapeutic cloning, which apparently would be banned
under federal funds even if the bill in the Senate becomes law. By using a
patient's own skin cells, the stem cells would have the patient's own DNA and
would have less risk of being rejected by the patient's body.

Ben
Mitchell, a professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity
Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago, told Baptist Press the
discovery "couldn't happen at a better time."

"Hopefully it will
encourage the Obama administration to take the moral high ground and not
sacrifice nascent human beings for their stem cells," said Mitchell, a
consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Ethics &
Religious Liberty Commission. "Research science informed by respect for human
dignity can be a powerful tool for healing. Research science stripped of respect
for the life of every human being -- including early human embryos -- can become
a tragic tool for destruction."

The Obama administration has pledged to
overturn the Bush-era ban on most forms of embryonic stem cell
research.

The 2007 announcement by Japanese and American researchers was
a breakthrough of its own but had problems because the teams had to use a virus
to transport four crucial genes into the skin cell genome. The British and
Canadian research found a way to place the four genes into the skin cell without
the need of a virus.

"Stem cell research that requires destroying
embryos is going the way of the Model T," Richard M. Doerflinger of the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops told The Washington Post. "No administration that
values science and medical progress over politics will want to divert funds now
toward that increasingly obsolete and needlessly divisive
approach."

Other scientists hailed the breakthrough but told The
Washington Post that research on embryonic stem cells should continue in order
to see which method is more successful down the road.

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