November 21, 2011

Stem Cells, the Vatican, Politics: A Strange Brew

On September 28, I wrote on a study about creating dopamine-producing brain cells from embryonic stem cells. The story carried big implications for possible PD therapy. (

On October 21, I wrote about the Vatican’s signing a deal to collaborate with an American non-profit on adult stem cell education and research. (

A November 7 article from FierceBiotech Research reported that Sloan-Ketting Institute for Cancer Research in New York identified a third ingredient that enables successful transformation of embryonic stem cells into dopamine-producing brain cells in both rodent and monkey models. (It's the absence of dopamine that creates the tremors and control issues so often identified with Parkinson’s.)

On November 7, we learned that the National Parkinson Foundation (NPF) hailed this new study. At the same time, the NPF’s National Medical Director, Dr. Michael Okun, cautioned:
The dopamine system is but one of many neural systems affected in Parkinson’s, and in people with the disease, we still need to address progression. We hope that this success translates into relief for patients, and that it inspires future success in treating the symptoms of later-stage disease and addressing the underlying pathology

On November 14, ZEENEWS.COM, a division of, carried the headline: “Now, a New Way to Treat Parkinson’s!” The story reported similar embryonic stem cell developments from a study led by Florey Neuroscience Institutes and the University of Melbourne. The article quotes team member Lachlan Thompson: "The broader significance is that this novel approach will likely be applicable to the development of stem cell-based treatments for other neurological conditions such as stroke, motor neuron disease and Huntington`s disease."

Let’s pause for a second to remember that these promising developments involve embryonic stem cells, and not adult stem cells. The difference:
  • Embryonic stem cells -- which have the ability to become any type of cell in the body, thereby giving them enormous potential in repairing and regenerating damaged organs and tissue -- are harvested from 80- to 100-cell embryos (the size of a pinhead) typically left over from fertility treatments, never implanted into a woman's body, and donated to research. Extracting these stem cells kills the embryos, the key reason church groups and others oppose the process, which they see as tantamount to abortion. On the other hand, supporters of the technology's promise argue that it's better to use these cells to save lives, than to simply discard them.
  • Adult stem cells are harvested and then re-implanted into the same patient. Bone marrow transplants, for instance, are a type of adult stem cell therapy commonly used to treat cancer.
On November 14, at the conclusion of the Vatican-sponsored conference on adult stem cells, the Vatican Information Service released a message from Pope Benedict XVI, which included these comments:
Since human beings are endowed with immortal souls and are created in the image and likeness of God, there are dimensions of human existence that lie beyond the limits of what the natural sciences are competent to determine. If these limits are transgressed, there is a serious risk that the unique dignity and inviolability of human life could be subordinated to purely utilitarian considerations. But if instead these limits are duly respected, science can make a truly remarkable contribution to promoting and safeguarding the dignity of man.

In this sense, the potential benefits of adult stem cell research are very considerable, since it opens up possibilities for healing chronic degenerative illnesses by repairing damaged tissue. . . . The improvement that such therapies promise would constitute a significant step forward in medical science, bringing fresh hope to sufferers and their families alike. For this reason, the Church naturally offers her encouragement to those who are engaged in conducting and supporting research of this kind, always with the proviso that it be carried out with due regard for the integral good of the human person and the common good of society....

This proviso is most important. The pragmatic mentality that so often influences decision-making in the world today is all too ready to sanction whatever means are available in order to attain the desired end, despite ample evidence of the disastrous consequences of such thinking. When the end in view is one so eminently desirable as the discovery of a cure for degenerative illnesses, it is tempting for scientists and policy-makers to brush aside ethical objections and to press ahead with whatever research seems to offer the prospect of a breakthrough. Those who advocate research on embryonic stem cells in the hope of achieving such a result make the grave mistake of denying the inalienable right to life of all human beings from the moment of conception to natural death. The destruction of even one human life can never be justified in terms of the benefit that it might conceivably bring to another...
On November 13, on its VITALS page about health and medicine, carried an opinion from Arthur Kaplan, Ph.D. and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. The headline: “Opinion: Vatican push for adult stem cells can't neglect good science.” Among Dr. Kaplan’s comments:
Church leaders explicitly endorsed the work of New York-based NeoStem Inc. as part of the Vatican’s recently announced $1 million, five-year initiative to direct research toward adult stem cell therapies and away from embryonic stem cell use….
But do cardinals in red caps and men in collars trained in canon law and biblical study know best about how scientists should seek to find cures for damaged hearts, severed spinal cords, arthritic knees, lupus, peripheral artery disease and diabetes? ....
The point of this meeting, at which I was an invited speaker, was partly to reemphasize Rome’s implacable opposition to any research involving embryo destruction....
It remains to be seen how this campaign for moral stem cell science plays out. Many researchers pursuing embryonic and cloned stem cell research will pay no attention to the church’s message. Politicians representing nations with large numbers of Catholic voters are likely to press harder for funding for adult stem cell work....
My own view is that the Vatican still has a ways to go in distinguishing sound science from hype and insisting on good science as the basis for what the church wants to promote as moral.....
Last week, The Hill’s “Healthwatch” blog reported that former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson urged President Obama “to take the lead in promoting adult stem cell research and give the divisive debate over embryonic stem cells a rest."

The Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate made his comments at the Vatican conference, which he attended.

The article went on to report:
State Democrats had criticized his (Thompson's) appearance at the conference, and state scientists and biotech firms — the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a world leader in embryonic stem cell research — worried that he would reverse his earlier support for their work.
The beat goes on.

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