MENLO PARK, Calif. — Mark Pickup would love to dance with his wife again. But not at the price of killing another human being.
It is a choice that Pickup, now confined to a wheelchair, thinks he may face in the future if an embryonic stem-cell therapy for people with spinal cord injury, developed by Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif., ever proves useful in treating multiple sclerosis, as well.
The new therapy has already surpassed one hurdle: Geron announced on Jan. 23 that it had received its long-awaited Food and Drug Administration approval to begin clinical trials of the therapy in human subjects. Geron’s CEO, Thomas Okarma, said at a press conference that this new therapy might one day help not only patients with acute spinal cord injuries, but also those suffering from MS and other diseases of the central nervous system.
But if that was bad news for pro-life activists worried about President Obama reversing President Bush’s policy banning federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, there was good news in an announcement from Northwestern University Jan. 30. Researchers at the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine appear to have reversed the neurological dysfunction of early-stage MS patients by transplanting their own immune stem cells into their bodies.
Pickup, a convert to Catholicism and an advocate for people with disabilities from Alberta, Canada, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984. He understands the push to fund any medical research that might alleviate people’s pain and suffering — but not when it contradicts his faith. “I would love to get out of my wheelchair and go swimming with my grandchildren or dance again with my wife,” he said. “If, however, the therapy involves the killing of another human being in the form of an embryo, then I must forgo treatment and face whatever lies in store for me with an aggressive and degenerative disease.”
“I know what it’s like to have my life devalued,” he said. “Why would I devalue another human life?”
Geron is the world’s first embryonic stem cell-based treatment approved for trial in human subjects. The procedure involves injecting patients’ spinal cords with neural stem cells derived from embryonic stem cells.
“This marks the beginning of what is potentially a new chapter in medical therapeutics — one that reaches beyond pills to a new level of healing: the restoration of organ and tissue function achieved by the injection of healthy replacement cells,” Okarma said in a press release accompanying Geron’s announcement.
Dr. Christine Sang of Harvard Medical School, chairwoman of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association’s Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee, said that Geron’s potential new therapy heralds “an exciting time in translational, ‘bench-to-bedside’ research. We are all looking forward to the outcome of this first trial.”
Patrick Maher, president of the board of directors of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, agreed: “There are many prospective applications for stem-cell therapies. In my opinion, if the embryos in question are going to be discarded or destroyed anyway, scientists should pursue avenues of research that might lead to an improved quality of life for people living with a very significant injury.”
Safe for Humans?
Geron reported nerve growth and restoration of spinal cord function when the procedure was performed in animal models. Early tests must prove that the treatment is safe for use in humans, however, before further clinical trials involving larger injections of stem cells are attempted.
But a spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference said the FDA “is playing a dangerous game with patients’ lives.”
“Numerous studies show that embryonic stem cells pose a major risk of tumor formation and can grow uncontrollably even after being transferred to an animal host,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Now the government is rushing to approve use of these cells in human beings, apparently allowing politics to trump scientific and safety considerations.”
David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council, observed that Geron’s clinical trials have received more attention than successful adult stem-cell therapies for treating spinal cord injuries.
“In published reports in 2006 and 2008, groups in Portugal and Australia provided evidence that adult stem cells are not only safe but effective at improving the condition of spinal cord injury patients,” said Prentice. “Contrary to statements from the new presidential administration, embryonic stem-cell research is in fact the least promising stem-cell science.”
Ethical Debate Continues
While Geron’s embryonic stem cell-based therapy was developed using one of the oldest embryonic stem-cell lines, many scientists who wanted the government to fund stem-cell research with no restrictions were disappointed by the Bush administration’s decision to withhold federal funding for new lines created after Aug. 9, 2001. President Obama has pledged to overturn President Bush’s restrictions and increase federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.
In 2008, during his address to a plenary session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict XVI repeated the Church’s opposition to embryo research: “When human beings, in the weakest and most defenseless stage of their lives, are selected, abandoned, killed or used as mere ‘biological material,’ how can it be denied that they are no longer being treated as ‘someone’ but rather as ‘something,’ hence, calling into question the very concept of human dignity?”
The science of embryology teaches that human life begins at fertilization. Embryonic stem-cell research, which involves the killing of a unique human being in an attempt to cure different diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a cure. Non-embryonic stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or umbilical cords, does not require the killing of human life. It has proven successful in treating more than 70 different kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.
Such was the news out of Northwestern University in late January, where researchers found significant improvements in MS patients without using embryo-killing research.
Doctors first suppressed patients’ immune systems with chemotherapy, then injected them with their own immune stem cells, obtained from the patients’ blood before the chemotherapy. This created a new immune system.
“In MS the immune system is attacking your brain,” said Dr. Richard Burt, chief of immunotherapy for autoimmune diseases at the school. “After the procedure, it doesn’t do that anymore.”
There were 21 patients in the trial, ages 20-53, who had had MS for an average of five years. After an average of three years of transplantation, 17 patients improved. The disease stabilized in all patients.
The Church teaches that all research using stem cells from human embryos is “morally unacceptable.”
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of Human Life), Pope John Paul II said, “This moral condemnation also regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes ‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as ‘biological material’ or as providers or organs or tissue for transplants in the treatment of certain diseases.
“The killing of innocent human creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely unacceptable act.”
According to Wesley Smith, senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture, for opponents of embryo-killing research, “the issue has always been an ethics issue and not a science issue. Whether or not embryonic stem-cell research is ever useful in the clinical setting doesn’t change that.”
Even if years of clinical testing one day yield a more widely available embryonic stem cell-based treatment for spinal cord injury, said Smith, that would force people who oppose embryo-killing research to choose between a potentially life-saving or life-altering treatment and following their own moral convictions.
Nicole Ficere Callahan writes
from Durham, North Carolina.