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Latest stem cell claim baseless, Baptist ethics leaders say

Updated Aug. 28

WASHINGTON (BP)–A research team’s claim it has found a new way to derive embryonic stem cells that does not harm a human embryo is unfounded, Southern Baptist ethics leaders said.

Three fellows with the Research Institute of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said the Aug. 23 report by Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., does not resolve the moral problems with extracting stem cells from human embryos. So far, procuring stem cells from an embryo, normally done at five or six days of development, has resulted in the destruction of the tiny human being.

ACT reported, however, it had found a method for removing a single cell from an eight-cell embryo in its second day of life and developing it into a stem cell line without destroying the nascent human being. “There is no rational reason left to oppose this research,” said Robert Lanza, ACT’s vice president and lead author of the report, according to The New York Times.

Not so, the Southern Baptist ethics leaders said.

ACT’s claim constitutes “ethical smoke and mirrors,” said C. Ben Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago. “There are huge, unresolved ethical problems here.”

Don Buckley, a Pensacola, Fla., physician, said it is “back to the drawing board. It does not solve our moral dilemma.”

Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research, said, “While we appreciate Dr. Lanza’s effort to find a way around the unacceptable destruction of human embryos to obtain embryonic stem cells, we do not consider his solution to be viable.”

Even Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and a supporter of embryonic stem cell research, said of the report in a column for MSNBC, “What we have here is hype, not hope.”

Buckley, Duke and Mitchell -– all founding fellows of the ERLC’s Research Institute –- and other ethics specialists cited the following objections among reasons for opposing the newly reported method:

— Each cell at the eight-cell stage is “totipotent,” meaning it could develop into a human embryo but instead would be destroyed after it is extracted for development into stem cells.

— The embryo left after a cell is removed may be implanted and produce a healthy baby at birth, but it is uncertain what the long-term effect is on these embryos who have lost part of their genetic material.

— The procedure requires the creation of embryos through in vitro fertilization, which could result in excess embryos who will be either destroyed or frozen.

The ACT study, which was published in the journal Nature, reported at least 16 human embryos were destroyed in the effort to develop the method.

“Using healthy embryos in research that could harm them is not morally justifiable,” said Mitchell, also an ERLC consultant. “Life-threatening experiments should only be done by consent or, in the case of children, with parents’ consent and only where the experiment might benefit the child. These embryos had nothing to gain by being used like laboratory rats.”

Duke, director of the Research Institute, said, “The promise of stem cells is vast. God has put at our discretion the ability to develop a set of tools to help us fix some of humanity’s most devastating maladies. To sacrifice the most vulnerable of our species for the benefit of the rest is too high a price to pay. Today’s scientists must move forward on a solid ethical footing or they risk falling into the same pit that doomed many of Nazi Germany’s scientists to a legacy of disgust and moral outrage. We do not need to destroy, or even put at risk, human embryos in order to achieve the wonderful promise of stem cell therapy.”

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues. The remarkable ability of stem cells has given hope for the development of cures for a variety of diseases and other ailments. Embryonic stem cells are considered “pluripotent,” meaning they can develop into all of the different cell types in the body. Non-embryonic stem cells are regarded as “multipotent,” meaning they can form many, though not all, of the body’s cell types.

Unlike research using embryos, extracting stem cells from non-embryonic sources –- such as umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow -– does not harm the donor and has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia.

Embryonic research has yet to treat any diseases in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals.

Both Duke and Mitchell urged expanded research on non-embryonic stem cells.

“We applaud those scientists who are determined to advance our knowledge and our ability to assist our fellow humans in a way that respects all life,” Duke said in a commentary for the ERLC’s website, www.erlc.com.

Mitchell said in a release through the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, “One thing the ACT study does show is that scientists are becoming more sensitive to pressure to develop alternatives that do not harm embryos.”

The method used by ACT to remove a cell from an eight-cell embryo is the same used for preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a technique utilized during in vitro fertilization treatments. In PGD, a cell is removed for genetic testing before the tiny human being is implanted.

“PGD is, among other things, a form of eugenics,” Mitchell said. “Only ‘desirable’ embryos are allowed to develop. Embryos that do no pass quality control are destroyed.”

Stem cell research that destroys embryos is legal in the United States but is not funded by the federal government. In July, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have weakened his policy barring federal grants for experiments that result in the destruction of embryos. The legislation would have underwritten research that uses embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics. Bush’s rule allows funds for research only on embryonic stem cell lines already in existence when his policy was announced in 2001.

The federal government provides funds for non-embryonic stem cell research.