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Bioethicist: Fat tests add to case against embryo research

WASHINGTON (BP)–New research showing the potential for human fat to produce tissues of different kinds again demonstrates why experimentation on human embryos is unnecessary, a Southern Baptist bioethicist said.

An April 10 report in the journal Tissue Engineering reveals scientists have been successful in growing cartilage, muscle and bone cells in the laboratory from cells found in human fat, according to The Washington Post. The researchers used fat taken by liposuction from patients’ hips and thighs to produce the cells, The Post reported.

The results suggest the availability of another source for stem cells that does not have ethical drawbacks. Stems cells are primitive cells that hold the potential of producing cells and tissues to use as replacements in treating a variety of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and diabetes.

Many advocates of stem cell research have contended human embryos are the only truly beneficial sources of therapeutic cells. Pro-life advocates overwhelmingly have opposed such experimentation on human embryos, because it requires their destruction. Pro-lifers have supported the use of stem cells from such sources as placentas, umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow, because the killing of a human being is not required. Recent studies have shown stem cells from such sources can be effective, and the report on human-fat experimentation is another example of the hope provided by ethical means.

C. Ben Mitchell, a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the report “encouraging news.”

“This study demonstrates again that human embryos are not needed for significant research,” Mitchell said. “The health and safety risks of using fetal tissue are too high, and the moral costs of doing so are even higher. The destruction of human embryos in research is horrifically grotesque when human fat cells hold so much promise.”

The report confirms there “is much we still do not know,” said Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago. “Once again we see that we are only at the very threshold of stem cell research. The learning curve is incredibly steep.”

While the research did not prove that fat contains stem cells, it did show that eliminating extraneous material from fat leaves behind a mixture of cells that can reproduce itself in the lab for at least a year and has the capacity to produce a variety of cells, according to The Post. Regardless, the point is human fat contains cells that can grow into many tissues, the researchers said, The Post reported.

Meanwhile, research reported April 9 in England showed the superiority of adult stem cells over fetal stem cells. According to CNSNews.com, researchers in London working with rats indicated the transplantation of such cells can aid in the recovery of stroke victims. These stem cells, when transplanted, moved to the region of the brain that needed repair, unlike stem cells from aborted babies, CNSNews.com reported.

The reports came as the Bush administration is reviewing National Institutes of Health guidelines permitting federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. Those rules were adopted lat year under President Clinton.

Pro-life advocates had hoped Bush would already have rescinded the NIH rules, but Tommy Thompson, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said in late February a determination whether to retain the guidelines would not be made until the summer. In the meantime, researchers should continue to apply for funding, Thompson said.

In response to Thompson’s announcement, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and other pro-life organizations wrote Bush in early March asking him to clarify his position by repealing the NIH guidelines.

A lawsuit was filed in federal court in the District of Columbia in early March to block the funding of embryonic stem cell experimentation. Among parties in the suit are Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a California agency that helps in the adoption of live human embryos in storage at in vitro fertilization clinics, and the Christian Medical Association.

Congress adopted a measure in 1996 prohibiting federal support for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” The ERLC, as well as pro-life leaders in Congress and other pro-life organizations, criticized the NIH action last year as a violation of the federal law and of the sanctity of human life.

The NIH rules issued last August allow federal funds to be used for the study of stem cells from early human embryos but not for the actual act of deriving such cells and thereby destroying the embryos. The extraction of the cells has to be privately funded to fit within NIH rules.

Advocates of embryonic stem cell research were dealt a serious blow on the same day the lawsuit was filed. A study using fetal stem cells in Parkinson’s disease patients failed to demonstrate a benefit and also had crippling side effects, according to The New York Times. The research results, reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, showed the cells grew too much in about 15 percent of patients, causing them to jerk uncontrollably, The Times reported.