October 28, 2004
The Truth About Stem Cell Research
By Fr. Alfred Cioffi, The Florida Catholic
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk is not your typical priest. With a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and having done post-doctoral research at Massachusetts General Hospital, connected to Harvard Medical School, Father Tad, as hes known, is one of the churchs top bioethicists.
In Orlando for the Catholic Medical Associations national conference, the Fall River priest, who serves as director for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, shared insights into the myths and realities of embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, and in vitro fertilization and why the church has taken such a strong stand against such practices.
He outlined 10 great media myths in the debate over stem-cell research.
Myth 1Stem cells come only from embryos
Father Pacholczyk said people must understand what stem cells arecells that are differentiated based on what human tissue they are taken from. The body has 220 different stem-cell types that can be extracted from nearly every part of the body, including eyes, spinal cord, blood, brain, skin, and muscle. In most cases, stem cells can be extracted without harming the individual.
The goal of stem-cell research in general is to generate new cells in the laboratory that can be put back into a persons body and hopefully take over for dying tissue or cells affected by the disease. Bone-marrow transplants, for example, utilize stem cells.
Myth 2The church is against stem-cell research
Father Pacholczyk said the church supports stem-cell research in most cases. There are ethical concerns depending on the source of the stem cells, he explained. The church has no problems with stem cell research when the stem cells are taken from adults, umbilical cords, or miscarriages. Stem cells from miscarriages are known as embryonic germ cells.
But the church is against standard embryonic stem-cell research. Why?
Embryonic stem cells come from embryos that are about five to seven days old, he explained. He added that their use is being pushed among some researchers because the cells are thought to be more flexible and not committed to a particular cell type and hypothetically could be manipulated in the laboratory to become any type of tissue in the body. The only way to extract the stem cells located in the inner cell mass of the embryo which eventually becomes the baby, is to extract it violently from the embryo, thus killing it.
Myth 3Embryonic stem-cell research show the most promise
Father Pacholcyzk outlined some 98 different diseases that can be treated using umbilical cord and adult stem cells. Research using adult stem cells is 20 to 30 years ahead of embryonic stem cell research and actually holds greater promise. Currently, there is no scientific evidence where embryonic stem cells have been used successfully in animal trials.
Theyve found that in the research that has been done that embryonic stem cells actually end up generating tumors in the animals and do not assimilate into the body, the priest said. The embryonic stem cells are so energetic that they are hard to control and manipulate.
Myth 4Embryonic stem-cell research is against the law
There is currently no law or regulation against destroying human embryos for research purposes, the priest said. While President George W. Bush banned the use of federal funding to support research on embryonic stem cells created after August 2001, it is not illegal. Anyone using private funds is free to pursue it.
Myth 5President Bush created new restrictions to federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research
Father Pacholcyzk said that in 1996, under President Bill Clinton, the Dickey Amendment prohibited the use of federal funds that would involve the destruction of embryos. President Bushs decision actually liberalized the law and permitted (federal) research on embryonic stem cell lines created before a certain date, he said.
Myth 6Therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning are fundamentally different
Father Pacholczyk said that both cloning practices are basically the same, the difference lies in the purpose for each.
One creates an embryo to be used for research purposes, the other creates an embryo for having a baby, he said. You use the same steps for each.
Using himself as an example, Father Pacholczyk, 40, outlined the reproductive cloning process. Using a piece of his hair with the root and cells still attached and a womans donated egg with the DHA extracted, scientists could force the DNA nucleus from the hair into the egg using an electrical charge, he said. An early human embryo begins to develop. It doesnt go any further until its put into the womans uterus at which point it would create my exact twin, but 40 years younger, he said. The science is still unstable, he said, and usually never works. It took 230 attempts for us to get Dolly, he said, referring to the first-ever cloned sheep. There is a high rate of abnormalities and most die during gestation and right after birth. Cloning primates is particularly difficult.
Therapeutic cloning is cloning for tissue research. The procedure is the same until after the human embryo begins to develop. Rather than placing it in the uterus, it is destroyed. The tissue wouldnt come from me but from my twin, Father Pacholczyk said.
Neither practice is condoned by the church. With therapeutic cloning, its creating twins to be streamlined for parts, he said. Reproductive cloning takes something that is a private and natural gift between a husband and wife and makes it a scientific process.
Myth 7Somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is different from cloning
In some news programs, Father Pacholcyzk said scientists have made the claim that somatic cell nuclear transfer isnt the same as cloning. Youre taking the nucleus from the cell and transferring it into the egg, he said. Its the same thing as cloning.
Myth 8By doing SCNT, we can directly produce tissues or organs without having to clone an embryo
In current research, we cannot make tissues and organs directly, the priest said. We must always first clone an embryo and then destroy it for tissue.
Myth 9Every body cell, or somatic cell, is somehow an embryo and thus a human life
Father Pacholcyzk said some people argue that every cell in the body has the potential to become an embryo so does that mean every time we wash our hands and are shedding thousands of cells we are killing life?
Father Pacholcyzk said such an argument overlooks the basic difference between a regular body cell and one whose nuclear material has been fused with an unfertilized egg cell resulting in an embryo. Skin cells will give rise to more skin cells when it divides, while an embryo will give rise to the entire adult organism, he said. Only embryos are potential adults.
Myth 10Because frozen embryos may one day end up being discarded by somebody that makes it allowable, even laudable, to violate and destroy those embryos
Embryonic inviolability doesnt hinge on whether the embryo is trapped in liquid nitrogen or not, said Father Pacholcyzk, referring to the process in which embryos are frozen for use in in vitro fertilization.
A brochure the priest gave out compared such an action as comparable to children permanently trapped in a schoolhouse through no fault of their own; that would not make it morally acceptable to send in a remote control robotic device which would harvest organs from those children and cause their demise.
The Florida Catholic Conference
P.O. Box 1677 * Tallahassee, FL * 32302-1677
Phone (850) 222-3803 * Fax (850) 681-9548