New source for stem cells would sidestep moral issues for Catholics

  • January 16, 2007
OTTAWA - The Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute welcomed news that a source of stem cells has been found in amniotic fluid that bypasses the ethical problems of using embryonic stem cells.
"From the articles, it looks like a huge advance," said Moira McQueen, the Toronto-based institute's director. "I do think it is very important to stress that there is an alternative to embryonic stem cells.

"The whole idea that Catholics are against stem cell research is ridiculous," she said. When it comes to research on embryonic stem cells, however, "moral issues are more important than anything else."

The Catholic Church opposes the destruction of embryos to obtain stem cells, saying that human lives are killed in the process.

Bypassing the ethical problems with stem cells "would avoid the problematic issues related to the destruction of the embryo," said Dr. James Roche, vice-president, advocacy and policy with the Catholic Health Association of Canada.

"We've tried to be clear about our approach to stem cell research — it's very supportive in terms of the good that it would seem to be able to accomplish in the future in terms of relieving suffering and finding cures, but at the same time wanting it to progress ethically," said Roche.

In early January, doctors at North Carolina's Wake Forest University and Harvard Medical School released findings of experiments with stem cells isolated from the fluid surrounding the fetus in the womb in an online version of the Nature Biotechnology journal.

"They're neither embryonic stem cells, nor adult stem cells . . . they're somewhere in the middle," said the report's senior author Dr. Anthony Atala, according to the Globe and Mail.

Though the cells were first isolated seven years ago, it has taken seven years of research to prove they were in fact stem cells. The doctors reported they were able to grow six different cell types from the stem cells, and to produce bone and implant human neural cells that survived implantation in laboratory mice.

McQueen cautioned that the research is in its early stages, but that the cells show even greater promise than embryonic stem cells, which have been shown to produce tumours when implanted or create a rejection response that requires the use of anti-rejection drugs.

"There's a lot less difficulty in obtaining these stem cells," said McQueen. "That would help researchers too, wouldn't it, just in terms of hastening things. And that has to be a plus."

"When these new announcements come out they're always cautious certainly in terms of saying how certain they are and where they could lead," said Roche. "In terms of what's presented there from our perspective it's very hopeful."

Embryonic stem cell research has not done all that well, McQueen said, even before one gets into the moral issues. There have been advances in adult stem cell research, but these seldom get much attention.

"It has always struck me as strange any time there's been a success with adult stem cells, it's hardly mentioned in the media," McQueen said. "But if there's even the possibility of success with embryonic stem cells, (and it hasn't happened) yet, those are the ones that are held up as the way we should be going. I don't find that very scientific at all."

Dr. Rene Leiva, an Ottawa family doctor and member of Canadian Physicians for Life, notes that the fluid producing the amniotic stem cells was collected before the baby was born.

"There is always the small risk you can produce complications, even with a sterile technique, always a risk of inducing a miscarriage," he said.

He said that collecting the fluid for the sake of collecting stem cells might cause undo risk to the baby. But using the stem cells from fluid collected for medical reasons such as genetic testing would be "completely moral."

McQueen noted that the researchers are looking into whether these stem cells can also be found in amniotic fluid in the placenta and that would bypass any potential harm to the infant if they could be isolated after birth.

(With files from Michael Swan)

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