Saved by Stem Cells
Senate Debate Nears, Ethical Therapies Build Track Record
by Patrick Novecosky
National Catholic Register
July 2, 2006
WASHINGTON — When the U.S. Senate
debates stem cell laws this summer, they should learn a lesson from Mary
When she saw her 2-year-old son’s
fists balling up and his arms getting spastic, she knew she had to do something
Ryan Schneider was diagnosed with a
mild form of cerebral palsy before his third birthday. Fortunately, Mary and her
husband, Steve, had stored the boy’s cord blood with the Cord Blood Registry
when he was born.
The blood is stored as a source of
adult stem cells, which doctors have found effective. A bill sponsored by Sen.
Arlen Specter, R-Pa., would give federal support to the use of stem cells that
come from destroying embryos — an approach that has yielded no positive results.
Last October, a Duke University
doctor performed a procedure that injected adult stem cells from Ryan’s cord
blood into the back of hand.
“By Christmas, he was a different
child,” said Schneider, a member of Visitation Catholic Church in Batavia, Ill.
“It happened very quickly. He started speaking in sentences within two weeks. We
could understand him. The dexterity in his arms and hands started returning
after about 60 days. Every day it was like waking up to a new child.”
The injected adult stem cells
migrate to the damaged tissue (and other tissue as well) and take signals from
surrounding tissues. They then become those particular cells and often repair
damaged cells. Why this happens is not yet clear, but may be due to the innate
adaptability of adult stem cells.
The Schneiders were one of five
families who shared their stories at a June 20 news conference and reception for
people who had had successful treatment with adult stem cells. The event,
sponsored by the Do No Harm coalition, was designed to put a human face on
treatments using adult stem cells.
The coalition, made up of
scientists, bioethicists and other backers, opposes embryonic stem-cell research
on moral and scientific grounds, said spokesman Gene Tarne.
Stem cells are undifferentiated,
primitive cells in the bone marrow that have the ability both to multiply and to
differentiate into specific blood cells and other cell/tissue types. This
ability allows them to replace cells that have died, and they have been used to
replace defective cells and/or tissues.
Adult stem cells are present in
human tissue, but embryonic stem cells are present only in the early stages of
Embryonic stem-cell research, which
involves the destruction of a unique human being in an attempt to cure different
diseases, has proven not only destructive and costly, but has not produced a
cure. Adult stem-cell research, which utilizes cells from adult tissues or
umbilical cords, does not require the destruction of human life. It has proven
successful in treating different kinds of cancers and autoimmune diseases such
as multiple sclerosis.
By the end of this summer, the
Senate will likely debate the Specter legislation and a “compromise bill”
sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
The Santorum bill would increase
federal funding for ways to derive embryonic-like stem cells for research. The
senator claims there are no moral problems with funding such research.
“There are no ethical concerns
because we’re not creating human life and destroying human life,” Santorum told
the Register. “This is simply a scientific technique to gather cells for use for
therapies in the future.”
Pope John Paul II said that all
research using stem cells from human embryos is “morally unacceptable.”
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium
Vitae (The Gospel of Life), John Paul said, “This moral condemnation also
regards procedures that exploit living human embryos and fetuses — sometimes
‘produced’ for this purpose by in vitro fertilization — either to be used as
‘biological material’ or as providers or organs or tissue for transplants in the
treatment of certain diseases.
“The killing of innocent human
creatures, even if carried out to help others, constitutes an absolutely
The Do No Harm event helped draw
attention to the competing bills in the U.S. Senate regarding stem-cell
President Bush has said he would
veto the Specter bill if passed by the Senate. On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush announced a
policy allowing federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research only when it
uses stem-cell lines created on or before that date.
Richard Doerflinger, deputy director
of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life secretariat, would like to
see more of this kind of success. But he fears senators are eager to push stem
cell research which destroys embryos and has other problems besides.
“It rests on a factual error as
well,” he said. “There are very few frozen embryos in this country designated
for research. The vast majority — 88% by one study — are designated only for the
parents’ reproductive efforts and those are off limits.
“This whole idea of the spare
embryos in fertility clinics is only a transitional stage,” Doerflinger
explained. “It’s only a come-on to get to the next stage of making embryos just
to destroy them. It’s also only the beginning of much broader road to creating
and destroying life.”
He said the Santorum bill has the
full backing of the U.S. bishops.
“The bill funds alternative ways to
get embryonic-like stem cells without using an embryo,” he said. “The policy of
this bill is very sound. We want the versatility of these cells without the
moral problem. Under this bill, you cannot fund anything that gets a cell from a
human embryo. Embryo is defined, as it has been in the appropriations bills, for
the last nine years. It’s a very sound, very tight definition.”
Part of the bill’s appeal may be
because of a bias in the media and scientific world toward embryonic stem cells,
according to Dr. Alan Moy, president of Cellular Engineering Technologies in
Scientists and the media are turning
to state governments to fund embryonic research because private funding is not
Moy, a Catholic, is working to
establish the John Paul II Stem Cell Institute to further adult stem-cell
Despite advances, stem-cell research
is still an “immature area in the scientific field,” he explained. But
scientists “are finding more tissues derived from adult stem cells that were
first thought to only be done with embryonic.”
To date, more than 70 treatments are
available using adult stem cells, according to the Do No Harm coalition. There
are no treatments available using embryonic stem cells.
“From a scientific perspective, it’s
adult stem cells and cord blood that are actually working to provide benefits
for patients,” Do No Harm spokesman Tarne said. “Even though, in some instances,
these are not yet full cures, it’s the first steps in developing this very
promising field. We don’t have to go down an unethical path to make medical
progress — good science, good ethics.”
Santorum, who is up for re-election
this fall, concurred.
“I’d like to find cures for a
variety of different diseases we confront in our society,” he said, “but I’m not
willing to do so at the expense of throwing away all ethical or moral
Patrick Novecosky is based in
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