NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The lure of stem cell research is intoxicating. Famous champions of the cause stir audience empathy with passionate pleas and promises of miracle cures. The paralyzed will walk, chronic disease will be ended, regeneration will take place.
The recent death of actor Christopher Reeve has added stem cell research ordnance to the battle for the White House. Conservatives are accused of having a medieval predisposition to obstructing the advance of science, depriving those who suffer of an imminent cure.
Don Buckley, a Florida physician and founding fellow of the Research Institute of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, addressed the issue during a weeklong workshop for ethics students at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Buckley team-taught the sessions with Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and Research Institute director.
Stem cell research has great potential, but it has been misrepresented, Buckley said. Advocates of stem cell research often accuse the federal government, and the Bush administration in particular, of opposing stem cell research. In actuality, adult stem cell research receives substantial federal funding. And, for the first time, limited funding of human embryonic stem cell research was allowed under the Bush administration.
The need for research is legitimate, mandated for Christians by God’s command in Genesis 1 to subdue the earth, Buckley said. “Knowledge gives us the capability to subdue the earth and use its resources for humanity’s good.”
Can Christians support stem cell research? “Absolutely,” Buckley assured the class, with one stipulation: “It depends on the source of the stem cells.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are two types of stem cells: embryonic and adult. Most body tissues contain adult stem cells, including the brain, bone marrow, skin, umbilical cord blood and fat tissues.
Embryonic stem cells can only be obtained through the destruction of an embryo, Buckley said. Five to seven days after conception, the embryo is a hollow sphere containing an inner mass of stem cells that divide and specialize, forming the intricate systems of the body.
The National Institutes of Health characterizes stem cells in two ways. They can divide and duplicate over a prolonged period of time, and they are unspecialized but give rise to specialized cells such as nerve, skin or muscle cells.
Some agencies, such as the National Academy of Science, theorize that only embryonic stem cells have the ability to produce any and all of the specialized cells of the body. Advocates argue that adult stem cells are limited in their capacity to produce a multiplicity of tissues or that they are more difficult to isolate and grow in culture.
“Since the late 1990s, these ideas are being refuted,” Buckley said. The prevalence of and rapid progress in adult stem cell research is changing the minds of scientists. “What can be done with [embryonic stem cells] can be done with [adult stem cells] without the destruction of human life,” he noted.
Buckley explained that adult stem cells have successfully repaired damaged tissue due to stroke, Parkinson’s disease, heart attack and spinal cord injury in animal experiments. Bone marrow transplants are the earliest example of adult stem cell success. Apart from the production of new blood cells, bone marrow stem cells also have been shown effective in repairing other tissues such as bone, cartilage and retinal cells.
Embryonic stem cell research is in its infancy and has many barriers yet to cross. Just six years ago, human embryonic stem cells were first isolated, nearly two decades after the isolation of mouse embryonic stem cells.
“One real problem with embryonic stem cells is the formation of tumors in the tissue in which the cells are transplanted,” Buckley said, describing such cells as “hard to control.”
“The job description of the embryonic stem cell is to form a body, and quickly,” Buckley said. “These cells may not understand that their job [within a specialized tissue] is to grow only one kind of cell.” Tumors then may form.
Sources for adult stem cells are plentiful, however Buckley said that only two sources for embryonic stem cells exist: those produced by “therapeutic cloning” and “unused” embryos from in vitro fertility clinics. Nearly 400,000 IVF embryos still remain in cold storage.
Christopher Reeve told Congress in 2002 that only the implantation of stem cells which contain “the patient’s own DNA” would be safe. His reference was to therapeutic cloning, the process of taking the nucleus from a patient’s cell and fusing it to a host egg which had been stripped of its nucleus. In so doing, a cloned embryo would be produced.
Buckley said therapeutic cloning does not solve the problem of rejection. The nucleus would contain the patient’s DNA, but the cell membrane, cytoplasm and organelles with mitochondrial DNA would still be foreign and subject to rejection.
Embryonic stem cell research cannot provide the quick and miraculous cures that some had hoped. The October 2004 issue of Reader’s Digest quotes Christopher Reeve in his admission that embryonic stem cell research “would not be of use to chronic injuries” such as his.
Whether embryonic stem cell research has potential is a moot point, Buckley said, noting that “an embryo is the same as a person, the same as a human being, the same as a soul.” Scriptures such as Psalm 139 and Luke 1:41-44 teach that people are created before they are born.
When life begins is a scientific question, Buckley said, and is identified by the mark of continuity. From the moment of conception, there is a unique genetic continuity that is “fixed by nature and remains unchanged through adulthood.”
William Hurlbut, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, has said that “conception initiates the most complex chemical reactions in the universe. It is a self-directed, self-assembling development.” Buckley quoted bioethicist Diane Irving to further explain that an embryo is “not a potential human, but a human with potential.”
Christians, now more than ever, must be prepared to defend the belief that man is qualitatively different from all other forms of life, Buckley said. The destruction of a human embryo, he said, is a destruction of a life made in God’s image.
For more information on stem cell research, visit www.stemcellresearch.org and www.cbhd.org (The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity).