Veritas


Human Stem Cell Research:

A Positional Statement

Robert W. Evans, Ph.D., Ph.D.

President, Veritas Ministries International

Director, Veritas Institute for the Study of Bioethics and Public Values, USA

www.veritasministries.com   www.veritasinstitute.com

What is a Stem Cell?

During the initial days of development, the human embryo exhibits the remarkable ability to diversify along specified molecular pathways that will eventually give rise to nearly every cell and tissue found in the human body. Some of these tissues will retain their ability to regenerate throughout life, including your skin and hair.  These amazing cells also have the capacity to renew themselves and to develop into other cell types.  In this lies their power to transfix the biomedical community and the popular imagination.  Indeed, should we learn how to harness and direct the mechanisms of human ES cell differentiation, the possibilities are astonishing.  Stem cells are found in both humans and animals, and may be retrieved either from embryos or from mature organisms.  When removed from a human embryo, they are referred to as human embryonic stem (ES) cells.

Potential Benefits of Human Stem Cell Research

Some scientists envision a day when we will have the means to artificially grow various youthful human organs that are totally compatible with the recipient, thereby eliminating risk of transplant rejection.  Others long for a day when ES cells might be introduced into a patient and directed toward tissue repair, such as the regeneration of a damaged nervous system in spinal injury.  Stills others are thrilled by the idea that we may one day correct congenital human defects while yet in the womb.  Indeed, there would seem to be no limits to the stem cell’s potential contributions to humanity’s future health and well being.

To hear the usual advocate for human ES cell experimentation, the aforementioned promises—and more—are almost within our reach.  Senator Ted Kennedy, representing the typical proponent educated by newspaper-science, has said that curtailing embryonic stem cell research would be tantamount to a "tragic betrayal" of patients who hope for cures. "It would be unacceptable to offer these patients and families the promise of effective stem cell research but deny them the reality of it” (Boston Globe, September 5). 

Newsweek put it similarly: “That may be the most tragic consequence of squelching what is, more than anything, a quest for knowledge.”  Notice that the prevailing attitude is that if something can be done it ought to be done!  The writers continue: “We simply don’t know how embryonic cells might help people who are suffering and dying today.  By banning the research, we uphold the most extreme view of the sanctity of life, but at a price: foreclosing the possibility of doing all we can to improve the lot of the living.”  

The Current State of Human Stem Cell Research

The isolation of the stem cell was first described in 1981 in experiments being carried out on the mouse.  In November of 1998, scientists reported that they had successfully isolated and cultured human stem cells—a feat which had eluded the profession for more than two decades and previously thought by many impossible.  In July 2001, the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, VA announced that it had created embryos (from donated sperm and eggs) for the express purpose of extracting their stem cells.  A few days later, Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, MA announced that it was trying to create embryos through human cloning.  Shortly thereafter, President George W. Bush announced that there would be no federal funds allowed for purposes of cloning or the destruction of human embryos for purposes of stem cell research.  On November 25, 2001, Advanced Cell Technology Inc. announced that it had used cloning technology to grow cells that may eventually serve as a source for stem cells.  Advanced Cell Technology is privately funded.

Currently, no one knows precisely how ES cells work, much less how to manipulate or direct their activity.  The field of human ES cell research is in its infancy—the stage of observation.  Put simply, more “lines” of human ES cells will not necessarily speed up biotechnological advancements at this stage; just as having more people to watch grass grow will not speed up its growth.  Should one day, the field of human ES cell research arrive to a point where we can control and direct its tremendous capabilities (a conclusion far from certain and nowhere near imminent), more “lines” in the hands of more scientists may yield faster and larger fruit.  But, again, that day, at this point, is mere speculation.

The Source for Human Stem Cells

Debate continues to swirl concerning the appropriate source from which to retrieve human stem cells.  Some maintain that human stem cells ought to be retrieved from embryos.  On this view, it is argued that human ES cells holds the greatest promise for medical and biotechnological application because of their supposed plasticity.  In other words, the suggestion is that human ES cells are more primitive in the developmental hierarchy; hence, they offer the greatest flexibility in research and anticipated therapeutics. 

Others maintain that human stem cells ought to be removed only from more mature adult sources, such as the liver, brain, or bone marrow.  The argument popularly advanced in an effort to detract from the study of adult stem cells is that these adult stem cells may not have the plasticity or potency of ES cells and, hence, may be inferior research material.  These claims have yet to be substantiated.  In terms of bioethics, experimentation of adult stem cells is not as worrisome as human ES cell research, since ES cell research necessitates the destruction of a human embryo.

The Scientific Perils of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

The bright glare created by the exciting promises of human ES cell research often obscures the fact that the field is laced with both significant scientific obstacles and monumental ethical problems.  Indeed, at the time of this writing, only approximately 15 technical research papers have been produced related to human ES cell culture and differentiation.  During this same time period, 150 scientific reviews and opinions were published and 1,500 newspaper articles have been produced.  One major factor missing from the sensational press coverage is discussion of the huge, and perhaps insurmountable, hurdles facing developmental biologists intent on developing ES cell-based regenerative medicine.

Given that embryonic stem cell research in mice has had a 17-year lead ahead of those performed in humans, one would expect that the research in mice should be far more advanced than the corresponding research in human systems.  So far, the crowning achievement in mouse embryonic stem cell research has been for the creation of genetically-engineered mice for medical and scientific testing.  Mouse embryonic stem cells in which the DNA has been manipulated can be put back into a very young embryo, and the embryo will adopt the new cells as its own.  After some breeding, scientists can obtain strains of mice derived solely from the genetically manipulated ES cell. 

Through this procedure, scientists routinely engineer DNA in mouse embryonic stem cells and generate mutant mice inflicted with genetic diseases such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and Alzheimer's disease.  Scientists then attempt to find cures for these sick mice by testing experimental drugs, prior to medical trials in humans.  Thus, the primary achievement of mouse embryonic stem cell research has not been the successful regeneration of artificial cells, tissue, or organs but rather the production of new strains of mutant mice.

By popular news accounts, one would assume that there are thousands of qualified researchers chomping at the bit to get at the 64 human embryonic stem cell lines referred to by President Bush.  According to popular scenarios, these researchers are primed and ready to generate entire organs in a dish from the embryonic stem cells.  Soon afterwards these regenerated organs would be ready for transplantation into diseased patients, offering miracle cures.  In reality, most of the past 17 years of embryonic stem cell research with mice has been conducted using only 5 or 6 mouse embryonic stem cell lines—not 64.  And fewer than 5 lines have been used for genetic engineering.  No organ has ever been artificially grown in a dish.  Although neurons have been derived from embryonic stem cells, this was accomplished only by the addition of harsh, and sometimes toxic, chemical compounds.  In fact, culturing mouse embryonic stem cells is truly an art (like gardeners with "green thumbs") and very few dedicated researchers have been able to perform embryonic stem cell differentiation experiments with any degree of reliability. 

Many enthusiastic scientists naively wishing to incorporate mouse embryonic stem cell differentiation into their research program attempt to ES cell projects in their laboratories.  Like novice students of the piano, nearly all give up this line of study within one year of effort.  Why is this?  Amongst all cell lines, embryonic stem cells are considered the most exotic and technically the most challenging to cultivate.   Currently, there are perhaps less than dedicated 10 world-class laboratories in existence with researchers sufficiently skilled enough to perform embryonic stem cell differentiation experiments with reproducible results. 

Worse, mouse embryonic stem cells are well known to become cancerous if implanted back into mice.  Without 100% cell separation accuracy, human patients receiving cell therapy from these sources would risk future development of cancer from the contaminating embryonic stem cells.  Thus, the dream of uniformly controlled differentiation of embryonic stem cells is, at this point, only a dream.  The host of technical difficulties experienced in mouse embryonic stem cell research indicates that it is not likely that any embryonic stem cell therapies will be scaled up for medical treatment in a cost effective manner any time soon—if ever.

The Ethical Perils of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Like most popular discussions in bioethics today, the debate concerning human ES cell research begins at the wrong end of the issue.  We hear much about the possible suffering that human ES cell research might end—indeed, a worthy goal—but we hear very little about what it means to be human, or in what our humanness consists, or when human life begins.  We are repeatedly told that the embryo is not a human being, it is merely “undeveloped human tissue,” or “cellular life.”  As one writer put it, stem cells are “little knots of magic tissue” (Time July 23, 2001, 22).

But if this is so, then why limit experimentation on the embryo to its first 14 days of “life”?  One landmark of fetal development is the formation of the primitive streak at approximately eight weeks.  Why suspend embryo experimentation between weeks two and eight?  The British Parliament said it was because after 14 days, “we encounter a moral problem.”  And what moral problem is that?  It is still, according to popular belief, but “human tissue” and not human life.  What precisely happens at the stroke of midnight on the 14th day that affords the human embryo moral standing?  Put plainly, if the human embryo has moral standing and a corresponding right to life it must extend to its existence during the first 14 days, and it matters not what potential good may be realized by its destruction.  Ethical ends are not achieved through immoral means.

Some argue that they wish to experiment only with already aborted fetuses.  However, research using aborted fetuses entangles the researcher in a prior wrong.  A researcher can be guilty of complicity even if he had no role in the original wrong and his own motives were beyond reproach.

Conclusion

The issues of bioethics, including embryonic stem cell research, are not the problem.  They are the symptoms of a more fundamental disease—the loss of moral absolutes, and a widespread failure on the part of our culture to acknowledge God as both the Creator and sustainer of life.  Indeed, human life is begotten, not made.  Human life is a gift from God, not a technological plaything.  Human life is personally fashioned by the hands of God, not the instruments of science.

One writer put the matter rightly: “[The nations] seem to be pausing at the brink, waiting to hear from the church or any other voice on why they should not plunge into the remaking of humanity.  ‘Tell us why we should not proceed to remake humanity now that we are developing the power to do so’—this is the challenge presented to Christians.”  (Christianity Today, Oct 1, 2001, p. 36).  Does humanity stand in need of remaking?  Absolutely.  But it needs to be remade from the inside, from the renewing of the mind, from the circumcision of the heart, from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.  In short, our hope lies not in stem cells, but in the One who created them.

Want to learn more?

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You may order the following resources from Veritas online at

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Evans, R.W.  “The Promises and Perils of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.  Audio Cassette Tape#: SC0001R

Evans, R.W.  “The Moral Status of Embryos,” in The Reproduction Revolution, John F. Kilner, Paige C. Cunningham and W. David Hager, ed., ( Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000).

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