A new research breakthrough was announced last month. With it comes another sign that embryonic stem cell research is a dead-end street.
Stem cell research concerns itself with generating new, healthy tissue to replace damaged tissue as a result of injury (such as spinal cord trauma) or illness (Parkinson’s disease). Stem cells are called undifferentiated in that they are neither bone nor skin nor blood nor other kinds of tissues, but they develop into these types, for instance when an embryo develops into all the varied cells and tissues of a fetus.
Research studies how to coax stem cells derived from adult cells such as skin or bone, or from embryos into the damaged cells one wishes to replace. Stem cells derived from adult tissues such as one’s own skin or muscle pose no ethical concerns.
Stem cells from embryos require the destruction of that embryo. With the understanding that the human embryo like the fully formed person has God-given life and dignity, its destruction must always be opposed, regardless of the reputed benefits.
The breakthrough by Chinese scientists confirms that at least in mice, adult stem cells in connective tissue can be induced to an earlier cellular state; in this case, pluripotent, or able to become many different cell types. Thus cells with the properties of embryonic stem cells may be induced to create new, healthy tissue to treat illnesses and injuries without destroying an embryo to do it.
Of course, it remains a big “if” as to whether human adult stem cells will react as do those of mice. More research is needed on this point. And the procedure should never be used to develop a human person through cloning, to which most ethicists and Catholic teaching strongly object.
Already, adult stem cells have been used to treat a variety of medical conditions. The new research adds strong evidence that stem cells can be coaxed from adult tissue and treat many more, without ethical objection.
It shows the dangerous folly of embryonic stem cell research, which over the last five years has lured commitments of billions of dollars in funding by a dozen states, though thankfully some of them have restricted research to adult stem cells.
The research increasingly looks to be outdated. The benefits of stem cells from adults are clearly helping heal people, whereas cells from embryos are curing no one, despite all the money and state initiatives.
Science is outpacing politics, so it is time for politicians to put aside the dubious flirtation with embryonic stem cell research. Science can help heal people without destroying their developing, defenseless brothers and sisters.