WASHINGTON — Despite advances in ethical adult stem-cell research, President Obama is pursuing clone-and-kill stem-cell research.
Obama rescinded the limits President Bush placed on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research on March 9. Obama’s plans will take money withheld from American workers’ paychecks and transfer it to scientists to create and kill human beings to harvest their stem cells. Embryonic stem-cell research to date has led to no proven viable clinical applications.
Obama also has put a stop to funding ethical and, so far, very promising adult stem-cell research, which does not require the killing of a human being.
If Obama’s clone-and-kill funding is successful, Catholics may have to choose between a cure that was derived from human embryo-killing research and continuing to suffer from debilitating diseases such as cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer’s.
When President Bush signed his order forbidding clone-and-kill research, he surrounded himself with rescued children who had been embryos slated to be killed. At Obama’s signing ceremony, he gathered legislators and Nobel laureates.
“In recent years, when it comes to stem-cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between science and moral values,” Obama said.
Church and pro-life leaders were swift to react to the president’s executive order.
“President Obama’s new executive order on embryonic stem-cell research is a sad victory of politics over science and ethics,” said Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. “This action is morally wrong because it encourages the destruction of innocent human life, treating vulnerable human beings as mere products to be harvested.”
A giant headline about the president’s action on the Drudge Report caused some confusion. It said: “Obama: No Clones!”
Jack Smith at The Catholic Key blogsite for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., said, “In Missouri, we know all too well that no cloning means yes cloning. It seems the president has learned how to push cloning the Missouri way.”
The state’s Amendment 2 in 2006 banned “reproductive cloning,” but legalized cloning for medical research. In other words: Cloning was fine, as long as the clones were not allowed to live. Obama’s policy does the same thing.
O. Carter Snead, associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said a pattern is emerging in Obama’s treatment of human life: His policies are maximizing the number of human beings killed.
“This is the latest in a regrettable series of developments demonstrating that President Obama does not intend to pursue common ground solutions on matters touching and concerning the moral and legal status of human beings at the beginning of their lives,” he said. “By taking this action, President Obama has moved the federal government from a long-standing position of neutrality regarding the morality of embryo research to a position of unambiguous endorsement and support. … The president’s policies are intentionally meant to increase the number of human embryos destroyed in research, all at taxpayer expense.”
Neglected but Promising
Adult stem-cell research proponents were puzzled by Obama’s decision.
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., cochairman of the House Pro-Life Caucus, denounced the president’s actions.
“Why does the president persist in the dehumanizing of nascent human life,” Smith asked, “when better alternatives exist?”
On Jan. 21, 2006, then-high school senior Edwin McClure was one of 21 patients to undergo a month-long clinical trial at Chicago’s Northwestern University using his own adult stem cells.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, McClure’s own stem cells were used in the trial. After undergoing chemotherapy, the cells were reintroduced into McClure’s body. Since 2006, McClure hasn’t been on medication and has had no MS symptoms.
In fact, within 48 months after the treatment, all of the patients were free from progression, and 16 of the 21 were free of relapses.
“There are at least 20 diseases where adult stem cells have been used in serious well-designed clinical trials — multiple trials for each disease,” said Theresa Deisher, CEO and research and development director for the Seattle-based AVM Biotech, which is dedicated to the discovery, development and commercialization of safe, effective and affordable pro-life therapeutics. “Outside of bone marrow diseases, the cardiac field is leading the way worldwide in the use of adult stem cells.”
Adult stem-cell clinical trials have also been completed for diabetes, MS, muscular dystrophy, stroke, liver disease, lupus and other genetic diseases.
Adult stem cells can be obtained in a variety of ways, without the ethical dilemma of harvesting cells from embryos.
They include deriving adult stem cells from the bone marrow and blood, as well as from placentas, placental fluid and umbilical cord blood.
Also promising is continued scientific confirmation that pluripotent stem cells — cells that can be coaxed to become any tissue type in the body — can be obtained from other places in the human body or derived even from ordinary skin cells.
Legionary Father Thomas Berg is director of the Thornwood, N.Y.-based Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a research institute devoted to natural law analysis of complex moral issues.
“Adult stem-cell research is the much neglected but vastly explored and utilized arena of stem-cell research,” he said. “It seldom receives the credit it’s due.”
But he said there’s another alternative, too.
“The big news of the past two years is that we have other sources of pluripotent stem cells that do not involve human embryos,” said Father Berg.
Recently, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles were able to create motor neurons using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are embryonic-like cells reverted to a pluripotent state from their adult state. Such cells could hold promise for treating such diseases as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
British and Canadian teams have recently honed the process for making pluripotent iPS cells. According to a report in Nature, the cells are reprogrammed by inserting four genes, which are removed once the process is complete, thus making it even more likely that soon these cells could be safely used for human therapeutic applications.
Earlier attempts at creating iPS cells, though promising, had the drawback of leaving genetic alterations in the cells which, if transplanted into human subjects, could cause tumor formation or genetic abnormalities.
Recent inroads, however, pioneered by the Medical Research Council Center for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, do not use viruses to transport the genes. Rather, an electronic shock opens a temporary “gate” in the cell membrane, allowing the DNA fragment to pass through.
“We have found a highly efficient and safe way to create new cells for the human body which avoids the challenge of immune rejection,” said Andras Nagy, a scientist at the University of Toronto who is leading the research work on the technique.
Such advances also avoid the numerous moral and scientific problems that plague embryonic stem-cell research.
Obama’s executive order not only rescinds former President George W. Bush’s limits on embryonic stem-cell research, but also rescinds the previous order’s explicit required funding for alternative methods, such as iPS.
While embryonic stem cells in theory have an unlimited capacity to become any of the 220 types of cells in the human body, one of the key problems with these cells, aside from the moral issues, is their tendency to cause tumors.
“Embryonic stem cells acquire certain properties in the petri dish that they do not have in the embryo,” explained Father Berg. “They acquire longevity and the ability to continue producing themselves without necessarily giving rise to other cell types as they would do if left in the embryo.”
Father Berg described embryonic stem cells — if allowed into the human body in an undifferentiated state — as “time bombs.”
Because of the embryonic stem cell’s nature to become something else, if placed in vivo (in a living body), they will normally give rise to teratomas — benign tumors that are a mixture of tissues not normally found at that site, such as hair or teeth.
Recently reported was the case of an Israeli boy suffering from a brain disease who had received stem cells in Russia from aborted fetuses. Within a year, teratomas had formed on his spinal cord and brain stem.
“In animal models, when they look long enough, they see tumors in 100% of the animals,” explained Deisher.
Why, then, is so much time and money put into embryonic stem-cell research?
Father Berg said that the attractiveness in embryonic stem cells include the hope that the research could result in amazing therapeutic breakthroughs, the potential for vast amounts of money to be generated as a result of such a breakthrough, and the idea of forbidden fruit.
“Many scientists say, ‘No one is going to put ethical limits on me,’” said Father Berg.
The first human clinical trials using embryonic stem cells were approved by the Food and Drug Administration on Jan. 22. The California-based biotechnology firm Geron Corp. plans to inject eight to 10 paraplegics at four to seven medical centers around the country with embryonic stem cells.
The study is primarily aimed at testing the safety of the procedure, but researchers also hope that the procedure might “provide some level of ability that can be improved by physical therapy.”
Geron has spent $100 million on embryonic stem-cell research since 1992. The company doesn’t currently have any therapies on the market.
Said Evan Snyder, a stem-cell researcher at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, Calif., “The one hope that everyone has is that nothing bad happens.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.