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Stem-Cell Alternatives Hold Promise

Q U I C K S C A N

Scientific Advantages
Constantly Changing
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When researchers announced earlier this year that amniotic stem cells have been found to possess many of the same traits as embryonic stem cells, scientists weren’t the only ones cheering.

Although the Catholic Church recognizes that stem-cell research can lead to life-saving medical breakthroughs, the Church has been among the opponents of embryonic research because fertilized eggs are destroyed in the process. But research using amniotic stem cells “doesn’t require harming anyone or destroying life at any stage,” says Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as reported in The Washington Post.

Phil Gingrey is a Georgia Republican and obstetrician who objects to embryonic stem-cell research. Regarding the news about amniotic stem cells, he says, “We don’t have to split the nation on this if we’ve got an alternative,” The New York Times reported. “We’re talking about saving lives.”

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Scientific Advantages

The amniotic stem-cell study performed at Wake Forest University School of Medicine was hailed for scientific reasons, too. The study found that both embryonic and amniotic stem cells have the ability to grow into many types of tissues.

An additional benefit is that “embryonic cells can form tumors when implanted in lab animals, but amniotic-fluid stem cells do not appear to do so,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

Anthony Atala, leader of the Wake Forest study, says if 100,000 women donated their amniotic cells to a “bank” for storage, there would be enough genetic diversity to provide immunologically compatible tissues for virtually everyone in the United States, The Washington Post reports. Since these cells can be found in amniotic fluid as well as in the placenta, Atala says it wouldn’t take long to collect 100,000 specimens.

In addition to amniotic cells being easy to retrieve during routine prenatal testing, they are easier to maintain in lab dishes than embryonic cells.

Constantly Changing

If you are confused by the terminology and continual changes in the field of stem-cell research, you aren’t alone. Even the experts are puzzled.

“Amniotic-fluid stem cells lie somewhere between the two major categories of stem cells: embryonic and adult,” says the Los Angeles Times.

But the National Institutes of Health admits that scientists do not agree on which stem cells should be termed as “adult.” Stem cells obtained from children and adults, as well as umbilical-cord blood and placentas, are usually described as falling into this category.

Then there’s the connection between stem-cell research and chimeras (organisms that carry both human and animal genes). In a recent article about chimeras, National Catholic Reporter (NCR) recalls that people feared the smallpox vaccine in the 1880s because children were injected with a disease found in cattle. Today, pigs have been injected with human blood cells to study the AIDS virus.

“The Catholic Church has no inherent objection to implanting genetic material from an animal into a human being,” says the NCR article. “Where the Church demurs, however, is transplantation of either the brain or the reproductive organs, which it considers essential to personal identity.”

Richard Doerflinger warns, “You’re creating beings without knowing what your ethical obligations to them are.”

Bioethics (the study of ethics surrounding health care and biological sciences) is the focus of many conferences around the world (www.bioethics.net). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is addressing this topic by updating its 1987 document Donum Vitae (“Gift of Life,” www.vatican.va).

Close to Home

We can’t afford to ignore stem-cell research just because it’s complicated and continually changing. For one thing, we need to stay informed about issues our taxes might support (http://stemcells.nih.gov/index.asp). And when we hear emotional appeals for funding, we need to understand the position of our Church.

It’s likely that many of us will be faced someday with making life-saving decisions involving stem cells, for ourselves or others. An article in National Geographic (July 2005) explains that adult stem cells from one man’s hip helped repair his ailing heart. In another case, a lupus patient who had experienced two strokes received stem cells from her own bone marrow. Six years later, this woman “has exceeded expectations: Even damage previously thought permanent is healing.”

Today, pregnant women need to decide if they want to donate or bank their amniotic fluid, umbilical-cord blood or placentas for stem-cell research. No doubt, many of them will determine that the cost of banking (about $2,000 initially, plus annual fees) doesn’t fit into their budgets.

Banking needs to be affordable to encourage more people and to avoid future guilt trips when unseen medical conditions occur. When I gave birth to my three children, I had no idea that both of my sons would be diagnosed with cystic fibrosis or that my mother would be diagnosed with diabetes and Parkinson’s.

Stem-cell research is both exciting and terrifying. There are still many questions to be answered. We all need to stay informed so we can make ethical and intelligent decisions about issues that are bound to keep affecting us and those we love.—M.J.D.


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