Tag Archives: stem cells

Good ethics makes for good science

Find out why you’re not seeing much about stem cells in the news these days . . .

Wesley J. Smith

Have you noticed that the stem-cell controversy rarely makes the news these days? There’s a reason: The greatest advances in stem-cell research over the last decade have not involved cells taken from destroyed embryos.

That doesn’t fit the media template of embryonic stem cells being the “gold standard” for regenerative medicine, and indeed, the “only hope” for people struggling against diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. Hence, advances that would have resulted in screaming headlines if accomplished with embryonic stem cells, barely caused a ripple and in many cases weren’t reported at all.

But there is plenty of good news on the ethical stem cell front. First, induced pluripotent stem-cell research (IPSC) is advancing exponentially. IPSCs are made by “reprogramming” normal cells — such as skin — into “embryonic-like” pluripotent stem cells that can be transformed into any kind of tissue in the body. This means that we may be able to obtain every purported benefit touted for embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) without destroying embryos.

IPSCs can’t yet be used in direct treatments because, like embryonic stem cells, they can cause tumors. But IPSCs are already being used in valuable experiments that we were once told would require human cloning to allow. For example, IPSCs have been made from Parkinson’s patients’ cells and changed into neurons to study the disease. IPSCs are also being used to test drugs and have been turned into mini faulty hearts to study rhythm disorders. This technique has advanced so far that in animal studies, one type of tissue was turned directly into another — without first going through the stem cell stage.

Meanwhile, advances on early human trials using adult stem cells are offering true hope for an eventual revolution in the treatment of some of humankind’s most intractable diseases. Here’s a sampling:

Heart disease: While there have been some mixed results to date in treating heart disease with adult stem cells, several human trials have shown great promise. For example, a March 2011 article in Circulation Research: Journal of the American Heart Association found that injecting bone marrow stem cells reduced the size of enlarged hearts by 15-20% and reduced scar tissue after heart attack by 18.3%.

Blindness caused by eye injury: Last year, a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients blinded by caustic chemicals had sight restored with the use of their own eye stem cells.

Multiple Sclerosis: It’s been known for some time that adult stem cells can stop the progression of MS. The treatment has carried some risk because it requires chemotherapy to destroy the patient’s immune system, after which bone marrow stem cells are used to reboot the body’s defenses. More recently, a small safety trial published in Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that injecting a pint of patients’ own bone marrow taken from the pelvis is not only safe, but appears to have efficacious benefit for patients — and without the use of potentially dangerous chemotherapy.

There are literally thousands of adult stem cell human trials ongoing at the present time around the world — as opposed to just three very small ESCR safety studies. Dr. David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, tracks these studies from around the world. He told me, “Published evidence demonstrating that adult stem cells can repair diverse tissues continues to mount. Even though there is little media interest, adult stem cells are effectively helping thousands of patients for dozens of diseases right now, with much more coming in the pipeline.” It is increasingly likely that the future of regenerative medicine can be powerfully efficacious without crossing important ethical lines.

And that’s the point to always remember whenever discussing the stem cell controversies: The debate has never been an argument about “science,” but rather, over proper ethics. But morality can seem terribly abstract in the face of hyped promises of cures!

But now that it has become clear that IPSCs, adult stem-cell research, and other ethical regenerative techniques have actually travelled farther than ESCR, even that weak argument is collapsing. Indeed, President George W. Bush had it right — and his critics had it wrong — when he expressed faith in the imagination and ingenuity of science to find ways forward in the stem cell sector that both promoted good science and maintained a proper regard for the sanctity of human life.

Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. Find out more by visiting his blog, Secondhand Smoke.

The Vatican invests in stem cells

The Vatican’s investment in adult stem-cell research is a bold venture . . .

Dr. Stephen Napier

It’s almost passé these days to revile the Catholic Church for being “against science.” Yet critics continue to label the Church as uncaring about the sick because of its opposition to embryonic stem-cell research.

The secular liberal culture assumes that the Church is not scientific, archaic in its moral commitments, and eschews virtually every modern development. None of these accusations is true, and the charge that the Church is against science is laughable. The Church pioneered the university system and developed dozens of scientific methods and principles.

The Church has long taught that medicine and the healing arts are a participation in Christ’s own ministry of healing the sick. In 1998, Blessed John Paul II told the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Heath Care Workers that “every act of helping the sick, whether in the foremost health-care structures or in the simple structures of developing countries, if done with a spirit of faith and fraternal sensitivity, becomes in a very real sense a religious act.”

Clearly no one, after reading this, would get the sense that the Church is against science and the development of medical therapies. John Paul is telling us that whether health care workers know it or not, they are participating in Christ through their work. And yet, we still hear charges of being “against science” with regard to the Church’s position on human embryonic stem cell research.

In fact, the Church teaches that some stem-cell therapies are permissible — therapies developed using adult stem cells, stem cells that have been reprogrammed to be more plastic and changeable, stem cells extracted from the umbilical cord blood, and stem cells extracted from miscarried fetuses. This is quite a list. The truth is that the only stipulation the Church places on medical developments is that they ought not to kill human beings in the process!

One of last year’s most underreported business-science stories had to do with the Holy See and stem-cell research. Last May, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture announced a joint five-year initiative with a company called NeoStem to expand research and raise awareness of adult stem-cell therapies. NeoStem’s Stem for Life Foundation, formed to create awareness about the promise of adult stem cells to treat disease, and the Pontifical Council’s foundation will work on a variety of collaborative activities to advance scientific research on adult stem cells, exploring their clinical application in the field of regenerative medicine — and the cultural relevance of such a fundamental shift in medical treatment options.

The Vatican has invested $1 million in NeoStem to develop these adult stem-cell therapies. It’s a rare move for the conservative Holy See to make a business investment like this. But its rarity is a lesson: The Church is serious about developing effective medical therapies that don’t involve destroying human beings in the process. This is a perfect example of the Church not simply issuing a “do not” against killing young human life, but taking it a step further by rendering a powerful “do” to develop effective and life-saving therapies.

Although the Church is stepping up by being proactive in the field of science, it still has an image problem. And the problem stems from ignorance — ignorance of what the Church holds dear. To a certain extent, the secular liberal public doesn’t get it. “Pro-choice” politicians, for example, have typically said that they are personally opposed to abortion but don’t think that the decision to have an abortion should be dictated by the government.

Such a position speeds across the border of the non-rational into the land of the ridiculous. If one is personally opposed to rape, then one would seek stiff laws and weaker evidentiary standards for convicting rapists. If one were personally opposed to murder, one would seek laws that prosecuted murderers and incarcerated them for very long periods of time. If one were personally opposed to stealing, one would enact laws that made stealing legally impermissible.

What this illustrates is that pro-abortion politicians, if they are being honest, don’t understand what abortion is. They don’t get it, nor do they understand the issues at stake. Abortion is the direct killing of innocent human life, a life which cannot speak for or defend himself — and therefore requires our protection. Such lives are the most vulnerable among us. To say that one is personally opposed to killing the most vulnerable among us, yet believes that such killing should be legal is utterly fatuous.

In the arena of human embryonic stem-cell research, the claim is even more ignorant. Many want to use taxpayer dollars for the destruction of young human beings. Clearly there’s a considerable amount of ignorance regarding human life and the protections human life is guaranteed under the Constitution. The Vatican has made a bold move by investing in NeoStem. If it’s promoted and explained correctly, this alliance may help clear up some of the ignorance regarding what Catholics consider most dear: human life.

Stephen Napier, Ph.D., is a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. He serves on the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board.