JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — Michael J. Fox hopes that research on human embryos will help him overcome Parkinson’s disease, but new scientific findings may give him pause.

As controversy raged over the actor’s TV ads promoting Senate candidates who back the embryo-killing research, scientists came out with new findings — research using human embryonic stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease produce tumors in research animals.

Dr. Steven Goldman and a University of Rochester Medical Center team, in a study released Oct. 22, showed that symptoms of the disease decreased, but tumors grew in the animals’ brains, according to the report in “Nature Medicine.”

That news came amid increasing political pressure by biotechnology interests for federal funding, and for loosened restrictions on human embryonic stem-cell research. Pressure is strong in Missouri, where voters will decide Nov. 7 on Amendment 2, a proposal that would have the state support embryonic stem-cell research and human cloning. The state’s bishops and others have criticized the proposal as deceptively worded.

The amendment would take away state and local governments’ authority to regulate and ban human cloning. Embryos would be cloned so they could be killed within days and used for medical experiments.

Microbiology and embryology show that a human embryo is, from the moment of conception, a boy or a girl with his or her own unique DNA and normal human life expectancy. The Church teaches that “from the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (Catechism No. 2270).

“Killing is killing, no matter how young or old the victim,” the bishops said in a Sept. 30 pastoral letter.

Others accused Michael J. Fox of misleading advertising against pro-life candidates in Missouri and other states. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, first appeared in an Oct. 22 commercial during the World Series voicing support for pro-human embryonic stem-cell research candidate Claire McCaskill, who is challenging Jim Talent for his U.S. Senate seat. Fox went on to portray candidates who oppose the unethical procedure as being against all stem-cell research, even the ethical and effective adult stem-cell methods.

The secular media compound the problem by failing to explain how the two kinds of research differ, according to Deacon Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference.

“We repeatedly see reporters gloss over the differences,” Weber said in an interview. “I don’t know whether they just don’t dig enough or whether the research community doesn’t want this to be clear. Money is definitely a factor, as they are seeking federal funding.”

“It’s ironic that a celebrity like Fox would push for research that produces tumors,” Richard Doerflinger, interim executive director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview. “The reason there’s such a fierce effort for public funding of embryonic stem-cell research is that private investors look at research results and say this is a very uncertain investment. In California, the major biotechnology companies and their allies spent $34 million on a successful campaign to pass the initiative requiring the state to borrow $3 billion to fund this research.”

Actress Patricia Heaton, in a Missouri television ad refuting the Michael J. Fox ad, noted another objection to the proposed state clone-and-kill amendment: Poor women would be exploited, as fertility clinics could pay them to extract their eggs.

In addition to Heaton, star of the comedy series, “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the ad featured actor Jim Caviezel of The Passion of the Christ, Jeff Suppan, a Catholic who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the World Series, Kansas City Royals slugger Mike Sweeney and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner. Produced by Missourians Against Human Cloning, it first aired during the Oct. 25 World Series game.

                                                                   

Ends and Means

Missouri’s bishops predicted that the outcome of the Nov. 7 vote will have national implications. They said the proposal would divert money from more promising and ethical research involving stem cells from bone marrow or other body tissue or umbilical-cord blood, which can be obtained without destroying the donor.

Goldman, spokesman for the University of Rochester team, which also included Cornell University researchers, said in an interview that the reason embryonic stem-cell research is being pursued is that adult stem cells have not proven useful as yet in treating degenerative neurological diseases like Parkinson’s.

The adult stem cells are more differentiated and thus less flexible than embryonic ones. However, the embryonic ones are unstable and appear to grow uncontrollably.

Goldman said he does not see using embryonic stem cells as morally wrong.

“I look at the moral imperative of being able to treat folks with this disease. I would worry more about this than about the loss of a relatively few number of embryos,” he said.

However, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, points out in his brochure “Stem Cell Research, Cloning and Human Embryos” that the “well-known moral principle that good ends do not justify immoral means applies here.”

His brochure presents these issues in clear and simple terms, and relates stories of people — including a Parkinson’s patient — who have been helped with adult stem cells. The brochure is available from the Family Research Council, as is a six-minute DVD called “Stem Cells: Beyond Hype, Real Hope.”

Doerflinger also took issue with Goldman’s claim that adult stem cells are unsuitable for treating neurological conditions. They have been used in promising clinical trials, even in humans, he said, noting that two websites — stemcellresearch.org (Do No Harm: the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics) and cloninginformation.org (Americans to Ban Cloning) — have a wealth of information.

“Patenting is an important factor,” Doerflinger said. “In adult stem-cell treatment, there is nothing to patent and sell if you use the patient’s own cells. Some say embryonic stem cells would be easier to patent. There will be future efforts to change the laws to patent human embryos.

“If you can make a tailored stem-cell line, you can patent that and make everyone else who does the research pay you to use them,” he added. “For example, what if you created the Ronald Reagan embryo, cloned from his cells, to be used in Alzheimer’s research?”

Gail Besse is based in

Hull, Massachusetts.