Father Thomas Berg of the Westchester Institute for Ethics & the Human Person reports in this NRO article on the recent stunning findings that the benefits of embryonic stem cells can be derived from adult human skin cells. Moreover, these cells are “patient-matched.” Since the cells originate with the recipient, there is little risk of rejection by the immune system.
Researchers have been able to reprogram normal adult human skin cells by introducing genetic factors that cause them to become “essentially equivalent in versatility to human embryonic stem cells.” One scientist called this development “the biological equivalent of the Wright Brothers' first airplane” (see AP article). Berg’s mention of future possibilities almost sounds like science fiction: “[The cells] could then be used to grow tissues for future use in tissue replacement therapies (everything from regeneration of damaged heart tissue to Parkinson's to spinal-cord injury).”
While Berg seems excited about the scientific and medical potential of this new method, he returns to his strong pro-life roots in his assessment of its meaning. He writes, “Most importantly, there would be no embryo created, destroyed, damaged or used in any way at any point in the process.”
Since LDS doctrine approaches the beginning of human life differently than does the doctrines of the Catholic Church and many Evangelical churches, some Mormons have been ardent supporters of embryonic stem cell research. The fact that human embryos are destroyed in the process, for example, hasn’t dissuaded Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) from enthusiastically supporting government funding of it.
Other Mormons have just as ardently opposed embryonic stem cell research. Mitt Romney, for example, says he was favorably disposed toward this research until, as Governor of Massachusetts, he met with supporters of legislation that would have provided state funding for it. At that meeting, Romney says he realized that there was no logical or ethical limit to how far they would go in destroying human life in the pursuit of ‘scientific good.’ He vetoed the legislation and has been the only serious presidential candidate that has promised to do the same at the federal level.
At any rate, it seems that the recent findings about somatic cell reprogramming will soon deflate the entire embryonic stem cell debate. Serious scientists in the field, including the guy that is considered the father of embryonic stem cell research, now say that reprogramming adult cells is where the field is headed. There will soon be no looking back.
For those that are concerned about the ethical dilemmas of destroying human embryos, President Bush deserves thanks for standing steadfast on this issue. If not for his singularly stubborn refusal to permit new federal funding of research that would destroy human embryos, millions of taxpayer dollars would have already created a client class of research organizations that would be reliant on looking for solutions only within this limited arena. It may even be that the president’s immovability on this issue created a climate that caused researchers to branch out and ultimately find a scientifically and morally superior solution.
Father Berg hails “the intellectual honesty and scientific acumen” of the researchers that helped to develop the new cell reprogramming method. He writes, “The best part, of course, is that, for advocates of embryonic-stem-cell research, as well as for those opposed to embryo-destructive research, and especially for those millions of potential beneficiaries of stem-cell related therapies, the advent of the age of somatic cell reprogramming marks an enormous victory for all of us.”