Modern technology has profound moral implications, both for good and for evil. This is manifestly clear in the ongoing scientific and public debate concerning human stem cell research. To say the least, stem cells have revolutionized the field of regenerative medicine and the course of its future. Stem cells have the remarkable potential to provide therapies to treat Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, as well as spinal cord injuries, damaged heart tissue, cancers and a host of other illnesses.
In 1998, the first human embryonic stem cell line was derived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Embryonic stem cells possess exceptional self-renewal and pluripotent properties—they can develop into any type of cell in the human body. Unfortunately, the use of embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of human life for research purposes, thus it fails to meet the first and most basic moral test for legitimacy. There are also scientific concerns that human embryonic stem cells will face immune rejection from the recipient’s body and also a risk of these cells causing tumors, such as teratoma or teratocarcinamas.
Although embryonic stem cells have been the focus of most of the attention from medical researchers and policy makers, U.S. scientists have had real breakthroughs with adult stem cells isolated from bone marrow and other organs, as well as cells derived from placenta and umbilical cords. Since 2000, adult stem cells have been used successfully in over seventy therapies; in contrast, embryonic stem cell research has yielded zero cure-successes.
Adult stem cells are multipotent and are currently less versatile, unable to become any kind of cell, like embryonic stem cells. But they do avoid the most basic ethical compromise, which is the threat to unborn human life posed by embryonic stem cell research. In 2007, scientists successfully reprogrammed cells derived from adult skin tissue, giving them pluripotent capability, equivalent to embryonic stem cells, but without, harming unborn human life, reaffirming the great potential of non-embryonic stem cell research.
One of the most recent and fascinating breakthroughs is that of amniotic stem cell research. In January 2007, it was reported in the journal Nature Biotechnology that scientists at Wake Forest and Harvard universities had isolated stem cells floating in amniotic fluid. Amniotic stem cells are shed by the developing unborn child in the womb and are easily retrieved during routine prenatal testing. Removing these cells does not require the destruction of unborn human life, neither at the embryonic or fetal stage of development.
Thus far, amniotic stem cells appear to have many of the positive advantages of both embryonic and adult stem cells. According to Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, amniotic stem cells “grow fast, as fast as embryonic stem cells, and they show great pluripotentiality.” He also positively noted that they “remain stable for years without forming tumors.”
One of the great moral dilemmas raised by stem cell therapy is the question of what lines would be included in any prospective stem cell banks. Stem cells, like organs for transplants, have to be a sufficient genetic match for medical recipients in order to avoid harmful consequences, such as immune rejection and tumors.
Dr. Atala optimistically suggests that if stem cells were derived from amniotic fluid, there would be a vast, cheap, and diverse source of useful stem cells. By necessity, this would mean larger stem cell banks and wider genetic diversity. Dr. Atala posits that if 100,000 women donated amniotic stem cells to a bank, it would provide enough cells of sufficient genetic diversity to supply immunologically compatible tissues for virtually everyone in the United States. With approximately 4.3 million U.S. births a year, it would not take very long to reach such a modest goal. It also helps that amniotic stem cells can be extracted and isolated as early as ten weeks after conception and their source—amniotic fluid—is so readily available during gestation and at the time of birth.
The results of such an endeavor could be incredible. Given the fact that amniotic stem cells are a perfect match to the developing fetus, tissues grown in a laboratory would not be rejected if they are used to treat, for example, birth defects after birth—providing a real, viable pro-life alternative to pregnant women with an unborn child diagnosed with a birth defect, other than the false choice of abortion. The cells, alternatively, could be stored and utilized later in life, if necessary, ensuring a readily available and perfect genetic match.
Dr. Atala stops just short of calling amniotic stem cells pluripotent, which is characteristic of embryonic stem cells. Amniotic stem cell research, still in its infancy, has not yet reached a stage where amniotic cells can be said, with certainty, to be pluripotent. The findings thus far are promising. Dr. Atala already concedes that they already meet some of the characteristics of pluripotency, such as versatility; moreover, the fact that amniotic cells are less likely to form tumors may be provide it a significant advantage over embryonic stem cells both in terms of research, clinical use, and public advocacy.
The discovery of amniotic stem cells may very well be a tremendous scientific and ethical breakthrough that will change the future, as well as the debate about stem cell research. Aside from providing an unlimited supply of stem cells for clinical researchers to develop regenerative therapies for an array of diseases and conditions, the process to acquire these cells, by necessity, promotes motherhood, in stark contrast to embryonic stem cells, which require the destruction of human embryos. This is undoubtedly a step in the direction toward a true Culture of Life.