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LIFE DIGEST: Stem cell report falls short of hype, experts say

WASHINGTON (BP)–Pro-life bioethicists say Advanced Cell Technology’s highly publicized technique for extracting embryonic stem cells without harming a human embryo not only is unethical but wasn’t actually accomplished by the research team in its study.

ACT, a biotech firm in Worcester, Mass., reported Aug. 23 its scientists had “successfully generated human embryonic stem cells (hES cells) using an approach that does not harm embryos.” The news media reported the study as a significant breakthrough that might end the controversy over the cells that supposedly have great potential for treating debilitating diseases but so far have required the destruction of a human embryo in order to extract them.

Pro-life bioethicists said the method of taking one cell from an eight-cell embryo to develop a stem cell line still does not resolve the moral problems. They pointed out the method would destroy the single cell, which, at that stage, is “totipotent,” meaning it could develop into an embryo. They also said it is uncertain what the long-term effect would be on a remaining embryo who has lost part of his genetic material.

Bioethicists Wesley Smith and Richard Doerflinger, however, said the technique was not just unethical. They said the ACT team did not successfully use the method, a fact noted in its report in the journal Nature but not made clear in publicity releases and news reports.

“Researchers did not safely remove single cells from early embryos but destroyed 16 embryos in a desperate effort to obtain an average of six cells from each one,” said Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a written statement. “The experiment left no embryos alive and solves no ethical problems.

“Their study shows nothing about the safety of removing only one cell, which in fact is something they never did –- partly because their own earlier experiment in mice indicated that ‘co-culturing’ several cells together might be needed to develop a cell line.”

Smith, a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute and a lawyer, said in a commentary for The Weekly Standard magazine, “ACT and the media –- in their desire to boost popular support for embryonic stem cell research -– simply took a leap of faith and portrayed an experiment showing that something might be possible as if the feat had already been accomplished.

“This is not to say, of course, that deriving embryonic stem cell lines from a procedure that allows the embryo to survive is impossible –- only that it hasn’t been done.”

The report in Nature showed ACT’s team took four to seven cells from each of the 16 embryos, Smith said.

On Aug. 25, Nature corrected a news release it had issued on the ACT study and provided clarifying information it had requested from the researchers, The Washington Post reported.

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 (often called “adult 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.

STEM CELL POLL –- Opposition to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has increased slightly in the last two years, according to a new survey commissioned by Newsweek magazine.

The poll, announced Aug. 26, showed 40 percent of adult Americans oppose federal grants for such research, which results in the destruction of human embryos. In an October 2004 survey, 36 percent of registered voters opposed funding the research.

Support for federal grants for embryonic stem cell research fell from 50 percent in 2004 to 48 percent.

The main reason for opposing federal funds for such research changed during nearly two years. In 2004, 37 percent said it was not a “good use of public money,” while 58 percent objected on moral or religious grounds. In the latest Newsweek poll, 49 percent said it was not a proper use of government funds, while 46 percent had moral or religious objections.

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, which does not harm donors.

The latest Newsweek poll, which included 1,002 respondents, was conducted Aug. 24 and 25 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International.

NEW CBHD HEAD -– C. Ben Mitchell has been named director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.

Mitchell, a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, will continue in his position as associate professor of bioethics and contemporary culture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. CBHD and Trinity are neighboring institutions in suburban Chicago, Ill. He also will remain as editor of the international bioethics journal, Ethics & Medicine.

CBHD, which was started by leading Christian bioethicists in 1994, provides resources from a biblical perspective on such issues as end-of-life treatment, genetic intervention and reproductive technologies. Mitchell had served previously as one of CBHD’s senior fellows.

Mitchell was on the faculty of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., before moving to Trinity. He also served previously on the ERLC staff.

The CBHD trustees announced their appointment of Mitchell Aug. 25.