DEERFIELD, Ill. (BP)–Groundbreaking news the week of Jan. 21 that scientists at the University of Minnesota may have discovered a potential method to treat disease also means there may be a way to put an end to one of the most difficult public policy debates of this new century. Catherine Verfaillie and colleagues at the Stem Cell Institute have found “miracle” stem cells that may well be the most versatile of all stem cells.
Stem cells are the precursor cells that make the nearly 240 different types of cells in our bodies. If stem cells can be directed at will to make needed tissues, then with a little help from their doctors, patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, or other diseases might be able to create cells to treat their own illnesses.
Verfaillie has found these remarkable so-called “master cells” in adult bone marrow. Not only do they seem to possess amazing versatility, but they may be “immortal.” Verfaillie’s research indicates that the cells may grow indefinitely.
Because these cells would come from the patients themselves and not from human embryos, there would be no need for human embryonic stem cells or for cloning human embryos for their stem cells. Both these sources of stem cells would require destruction of the embryo. If this discovery proves to be a reliable source of stem cells, then overnight one of the most heated debates in science, ethics, and public policy will have been defused.
This is a win-win discovery. Researchers committed to finding cures through stem cell research should be delighted with the finding. Those who find the cannibalization of embryos for their stem cells morally repugnant should be elated. Patients and patient groups should be thrilled.
The President’s newly minted bioethics advisory council should take this new discovery under assessment immediately. The President’s controversial decision last summer to use tax dollars to fund human embryonic stem cell research using stem cells that have already been harvested should be reviewed in light of the Minnesota research. If Verfaillie’s findings are corroborated by other research teams, then the President’s council should recommend a reversal of the President’s policy on funding embryonic stem cell research. This will prevent millions of research dollars from being wasted on unnecessary experiments involving ethically dubious materials.
Moreover, the National Institutes of Health should ramp up funding for research on these newly found cells to determine if their potential is a impressive as it appears it might be. The therapeutic and moral promise found in these cells is too great not to follow through right away.
From the beginning of the debate about human embryonic stem cells, all sides have said that they favored research that held the most promise and that could be done ethically. The problem has been that both the scientists and ethicists have disagreed about both the science and the ethics. Some have maintained that embryonic stem cells were more elastic than adult stem cells. Others have argued that adult stem cells show more versatility than some think.
In these new so-called multipotent adult progenitor cells (MAPCs), we may have found the answer to both conundrums. This has incredible implications for current scientific and policy debates, and a new research consensus should emerge that promotes research into potential therapies while at the same time recognizing and maintaining the dignity of living human embryos.
This latest discovery is a powerful reminder that stem cell research is still in its infancy. But what a difference one cell might make.
C. Ben Mitchell, Ph.D., is consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago.