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Catholic officials react to new stem-cell research technique
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Wednesday, March 4, 2009
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TORONTO (CNS)—Several Catholic officials welcomed a breakthrough in stem-cell research that could advance the science of regenerative medicine, but at least one Catholic ethicist wanted more information about the procedure.
Dr. Andras Nagy of Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital announced a new technique for creating pluripotent stem cells that can develop into most other types of human tissue. Nagy's method of turning just about any cells, such as skin cells and blood cells, into stem cells avoids the use of spare embryos from in vitro fertilization and bypasses previous techniques that used viruses to turn back the clock on adult cells. Nagy published the results of his research in an online version of the prestigious journal Nature Feb. 27.
In 2005 Nagy created Canada's first embryonic stem-cell lines from donated embryos. That research led to his discovery of the "piggyBac" method of reprogramming cells without using viruses to deliver growth factors to the cell's chromosomes. Viruses used to carry growth factors will incorporate themselves into the cells, which then could turn cancerous.
Adult stem cells have been used to treat Parkinson's, cystic fibrosis and other diseases that break down entire systems in the body.
In a March 4 interview with Catholic News Service, Richard M. Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, applauded the advancement, noting that researchers "have now figured out how to inject this genetic material directly and then remove it once it has done its job."
Noting the primacy of adult stem-cell research in treatment, Doerflinger said it is "one advance among many leading more and more researchers to abandon using embryos for stem-cell research."
In a statement March 2, Paul Long, vice president for public policy for the Michigan Catholic Conference, said he welcomed the "news of yet another scientific advancement that allows researchers to pursue ethical and proven stem-cell research without the need to destroy living human embryos."
But because Nagy's technique creates "embryolike cells," Canadian bioethicist Bridget Campion sees red flags.
"Are we in the realm of therapeutic cloning?" asked Campion, a researcher with the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute and consultant for the Catholic Organization for Life and Family. "Red flags go up when we say things like 'cells reverted to an embryonic state.'"
While the new technique does not use the product of sexual reproduction—whether natural or in a petri dish—Campion expressed concerns about how the technique will be commercialized and whether the resulting stem cells might represent an interrupted process that otherwise could result in a human.
"As Catholics we are filled with compassion for the suffering in the human condition, but the ends never justify the means," she said. "We don't work with that logic -- that the ends justify the means. Means are extremely important."
Jesuit Father Rob Allore, a genetics researcher at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, said there is no such thing as a scientific advance that will end debate over ethics in scientific research, but he hailed Nagy's paper as "a scientific as well as a technological breakthrough."
Many "are happy that this method takes us beyond the need for embryonic stem cells. The technique also begins to answer some important questions related to the genetic events involved in the induction of the stem-cell state," Father Allore wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register, a Toronto-based Catholic newspaper.
Scientists are constantly involved in ethical debate about what they are doing and how they do it, he said.
"Even with these wonderful advances we should continue to support a wide-ranging public discussion on ethical issues associated with embryonic stem cells," said Father Allore.
The new technique brings closer the dream of being able to use a patient's own cells to cure disease. That makes cells derived from embryos much less attractive as a subject for further research, said Father Allore.

"Embryos will always be a second-best source of stem cells," he said. "When stem cells are obtained from embryos you have the problem of an incomplete immunological match with the patient who is to receive the stem cells. If we can learn to induce cells to take on embryonic characteristics, we should be able to obtain cells directly from the patient. After being reprogrammed they can be transplanted back into the patient, where you would anticipate little or no problems with rejection."

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