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Catholic response to stem cells

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By Paul Nagourney
Catholic Online

"It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed ?" these words of Caiphas, aimed at convincing Pilate to Crucify Jesus, reflect the same issues wrongly posed by the popular media to the people of today. "Is it acceptable to kill human life of a fetus, so that others may benefit?"

Much discussion is occurring regarding the use of stem cells. As with any scientific discussion that enters the public domain, mass misinformation and exaggeration of facts is occurring, so that the faithful are cornered into the position to ask themselves whether stem cell research reflects the will of God, or whether this is a deception of the evil one, aimed at desanctification of human life. The Holy Fathers of the Church teach us that the "devil may appear as an angel of light ", could stem cells be one of these situations in which something is given to us that appears life promoting but really is a dangerous trap?

What are stem cells?

In order for us to understand the issues involved, and what exactly stem cells are, we are forced to take a quick lesson into the science of stem cells. A stem cell is a cell whose purpose is to generate new cells while having the ability to make copies of itself. Everyone has stem cells inside of them. For example, blood is made from stem cells in the bone marrow, after your skin is injured healing occurs because of stem cells in the skin, even after a stroke, although to a small extend, new brain cells are made from stem cells that are found in the brain. The younger an organism is, the more potent the stem cells are. For example, stem cells in a young person are found in higher numbers and have a higher ability to repair damaged tissue as compared to stem cells in an older person. So far there is nothing controversial, right? Right. The stem cells in the developed human can not make another human from scratch. They can make human tissues that are useful for repairing the human body, but they can not make a whole new human. They are not a new human life, but an extension of an existing life. These are adult stem cells.

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The problems started when scientists wanted to analyze the earliest stem cell. Since stem cells from children are theoretically more potent than from adults, stem cells from embryos should be even more potent. According to this reasoning, the first cell in the development of a human life, the fertilized egg, is the most potent stem cell. Embryonic stem cells are made from the fertilized egg. They are essentially copies of the fertilized egg that can reproduce in the laboratory. These cells, because of their potential to create a completely new human, are considered by the Catholic Church a human life, and accordingly their manipulation is a sin . What is more disturbing is the horrendous desecration of human life that routinely occurs with these cells for the purposes of "research"...research that has little to do with advancement of human health. We will discuss two abominable acts that are routinely performed in the name of "science" which call to God for punishment. Two acts that are so horrendous that any God-fearing person who respects human life should be disgusted upon hearing about.

Desecration of human life: Worse than 'just' killing

We learn from the Bible and the traditions of the Holy Fathers that God hates unnatural acts. Acts such as homosexuality have led to destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Furthermore, we learn from the Bible that acts that defile the dignity of the human such as bestiality are also vile and punishable. So we know that embryonic stem cell research is condemned by the Church because it involves destruction of human life. But how many of us know the other side of embryonic stem cell research? The side that cries to the Heavens begging punishment? The dark side of embryonic stem cell research that conceptually is a "sin against the Holy Spirit " and accordingly is unforgivable?

The first is the generation of mangled human life in the test-tube called "embryoid bodies". In the same way that the fertilized egg after implanting into the mother's womb starts to develop into different tissues, the embryonic stem cell, when placed under "non-adherent" conditions starts to form layers of disorganized tissues. These include brain tissue, pancreatic tissue, and virtually any tissue that is found in the adult . This disorganized monstrosity, literally, a mangled human in a bottle, is subsequently broken down into specific cells, and the cells are then used for experimentation. If we as Christians really believe that life starts with the fertilized egg, and that we are "made in God's image", then is it not revolting to purposely transform the beauty of God into the disorder of the devil? Is not the devil described as "the king of chaos?."

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The second terrible act performed in the name of science is the injection of these human lives into animals that lack an immune system. In the study of embryonic stem cells, researchers want to mimic what it would be like to administer an embryonic stem cell in a human, but since they are not allowed to do this, they administer the cells into mice that are genetically engineered not to have an immune response, this way the mice accept the human embryonic stem cells. One may ask, what happens when these human embryonic stem cells are administered into mice. If the cells have not been manipulated, they usually form a type of cancer called a teratoma . This human cancer in the mouse can be seen as the human tissue undergoing a state of disorganization, similar to that found in the embryoid body which we discussed above. If we as Christians really believe that embryonic stem cells are a human life, then why on earth would we allow for human life to be mixed with animals at a cellular level?

Medical problems with embryonic stem cells

Individuals not sharing respect for human life will answer the question posed by Caiphas, the same way that Caiphas answered it: "it is better for one life to be sacrificed in order for many lives to be saved". So let us examine the scenario in which we put aside our beliefs and ask ourselves whether embryonic stem cells actually have the potential to benefit humanity. The answer is a resounding "no". We will explain three fundamental points that demonstrate in a black and white manner that embryonic stem cells from a scientific point of view are not therapeutically useful, nor will be in the foreseeable future.

1. Embryonic stem cells cause cancer. The actual definition of an embryonic stem cell is based on its ability to cause the teratoma type of cancer in the mouse. Now what exactly is a teratoma? The word "teratoma" comes from Greek, which means "monstrous tumor ." This type of cancer occurs rarely in humans and is fatal if not surgically excised before spreading. Defendants of embryonic stem cell research tell us that teratomas will not occur if embryonic stem cells are used in medicine, since it is not embryonic stem cells that are given to people, but embryonic stem cells made into specific tissues that the patient needs. The problem with this argument is that biology is not perfect. Even if conceptually in 10 years it is possible to make, for example functioning liver cells from embryonic stem cells, how will it be possible to purify 100% only the newly generated liver cells and no left over cancer cells? It only takes one single cancer cell to cause a tumor to form. To this point, the defenders of embryonic stem cells will tell us that even if a tumor cell is left over, it will be rejected by the immune system. This is not correct since teratomas possess mechanisms to "hide" from the immune system, whereas normal tissue does not. An example of this is a mouse study in which teratomas developed and were not rejected, while the few embryonic stem cells that did differentiate into heart tissue were rejected by the animal .

2. It is not possible to generate equivalent of human adult tissues from embryonic stem cells. The embryonic stem cell represents the fertilized egg. It has the same immaturity as the fertilized egg. During normal development it takes numerous biological processes occur for a cell to "grow up" from the immature state of the fertilized egg to the maturity of, say a heart cell in a 63 year old person with heart disease. Since the embryonic stem cells are so immature, it is naďve to think that by exposing the cells to certain chemicals we can "accelerate" their maturation from processes that take decades to the timespan of days. For example, embryonic stem cells treated with specific chemicals can mature into what resembles heart cells. These cells even beat in the test-tube ! However, these cells are not true heart cells since a lot of the properties of an adult heart cell are not possessed by these "accelerated maturity" cells. Accordingly, to date, no real tissue equivalent has been generated by embryonic stem cells.

3. Embryonic stem cells are not compatible with the recipient. Let us imagine that the problem of cancer, and the problem of lack of maturity, has been resolved. A very significant obstacle that few people talk about is the fact that the tissues generated from embryonic stem cells are not compatible with the general population. God has made humans very unique from each other immunologically. This is why recipients of organ transplants are required to take drugs that suppress the immune system. Even if people take immune suppressing drugs, the transplant surgeon will not perform the transplant unless the tissues are immunologically matched. The likelihood of finding immunologically matched organs is between 1in 100,000 to 1 in 10,000,000. At present there are approximately 100 embryonic stem cell lines, which are derived from approximately 100 individuals. Therefore even through using immune suppressive drugs (which are toxic and have many side effects), the ability of embryonic stem cells to be used on a widespread basis is impossible.

Adult stem cells as an alternative

It is sad that with all the media and public attention given to embryonic stem cells, the great promise of adult stem cells is largely forgotten. As we discussed at the beginning of the article, adult stem cells are found in all of our bodies and have the purpose of healing injured tissue. The only problem with adult stem cells is that these cells usually are not found at high enough concentrations at the areas where they are needed. For example, people who have a heart attack or stroke, contain much higher concentrations of stem cells in their blood compared to healthy people. This is because the stem cells start to migrate to the injured tissue in order to heal it but there are not enough of them to cause full healing. If one could increase the number of stem cells in the body then theoretically, one could enhance the ability of the body to heal itself. Indeed, this appears to be possible. Numerous studies have shown that augmentation of this natural process by administration of adult stem cells is highly beneficial to patients with diseases ranging from heart failure , to peripheral artery disease , to Crohn's Disease .

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In contrast to embryonic stem cells, which have never been used in people and most likely will not be in the next several years, thousands of patients have benefited from adult stem cells. Unfortunately, in the US, adult stem cells can only be obtained by joining clinical trials, which may be found at the NIH website The only alternative for patients seeking adult stem cell therapy is going outside to US to clinics such as which replicate the procedures used experimentally in the US for select patients that fit the inclusion criteria.

Conclusion: Adult stem cells are the Catholic Christian's response

In today's time of general godlessness and lack of respect for life, it is not only the responsibility, but the obligation, of the Catholic faithful to understand the fundamental difference between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cell research is associated with not only killing of innocent life, but also obscene desecration of God's Image. Additionally, for the reasons mentioned, embryonic stem cells do not pose a scientific solution to health problems. They are a source of siphoning funds and attention away from real stem cell research that actually helps people's health. Adult stem cells, being part of the body that God gave to us are a great scientific discovery, whose translation into cures for horrible disease should be strongly endorsed by the faithful.

- - -

1 John 11:50.
2 St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
3 Reverend Demetrios Demopulos, Ph.D. Ethical Issues in Stem Cell Research, Volume III, Religious Perspectives, National Bioethics Advisory Commission, Rockville, Maryland, June 2000.
4 Matthew 12:31.
5 Kurosawa H. Methods for inducing embryoid body formation: in vitro differentiation system of embryonic stem cells. J Biosci Bioeng. 2007 May;103(5):389-98.
6 Mikkola et al. Distinct differentiation characteristics of individual human embryonic stem cell lines.
BMC Dev Biol. 2006 Aug 8;6:40.
. 8 Nussbaum et al. Transplantation of undifferentiated murine embryonic stem cells in the heart: teratoma formation and immune response. FASEB J. 2007 May;21(7):1345-57.
9 Abdel-Latif et al. Adult bone marrow-derived cells for cardiac repair: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med. 2007 May 28;167(10):989-97.
10 Hernandez et al. Autologous bone-marrow mononuclear cell implantation in patients with severe lower limb ischaemia: A comparison of using blood cell separator and Ficoll density gradient centrifugation. Atherosclerosis. 2006 Sep 15;


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