Sunday, October 16, 2005

New Stem Cell Methods; More Questions

Two new methods of creating embryonic stem cells are being touted by the scientific community as eliminating the ethical constraints yet providing the stem cell benefits. (USA Today: Studies show new ways to get stem cells). Indeed, one of the methods found may well produce quality results without raising any ethical questions since it does not endanger the embryo from which cells are cultured. The second method, however, remains problematic in that it prevents the development of an embryo.

In the present method, which is barred from use with federal funds, stem cells are harvested from an embryo five days after fertilization. The embryonic stem cells may be useful in the treatment of certain diseases such as Parkinson's or diabetes, however this method kills the embryo from which the cells are harvested. To those of us that believe life begins at conception, this practice is the equivalent of murder and is therefore not acceptable.

The first new method being proposed harvests a single cell after the embryo has divided into an 8-cell mass. It does not kill the embryo, yet the harvested cell behaves like an embryonic stem cell. In fact, the method used is identical to a practice already in place to check for genetic defects in an embryo. It poses little risk to the embryo and therefore avoids the ethical problems posed by existing methods.

The second new method is still problematic, however. This method still relies on the fertilization of an egg, however the cells are genetically altered to block a gene that is essential for the embryo to implant in a uterus. While the embryo is able to develop to the point of producing stem cells, it is incapable of attaching to the uterus and thus dies. There's no ethical difference between this method and the one currently prohibited via Executive Order.

National Catholic Bioethics Center director Rev. Tad Pacholczyk called the research into both new methods a step in the right direction. He said the research "is very encouraging. It reminds us that we have certain tools at our disposal in the scientific armamentarium that can be used in the direction of seeking an answer to the ethical impasse."

Indeed, that is the point of all this. Nobody doubts the benefits of stem cell research or the great potential it has in treating currently incurable diseases. What is needed now is the development of stem cell harvesting techniques that are not destructive to the embryo. According to Fr. Pacholczyk, even the second technique is potentially salvageable. There is already research into a method where the donor eggs are not fertilized but are still capable of producing stem cells. That would resolve the ethical issue since there would be no question of conception or life.

So progress is being made. It's essential that we recognize that the benefits of potential cures do not justify ignoring the ethical problems posed by such research. The challenge before the scientific community is to develop a method of harvesting stem cells that does not kill an embryo or hinder that embryo's development. Once that hurdle is overcome, stem cell research will be a fully viable discipline that may well yield impressive results in curing the incurable.


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