Priest-ethicist supports new technique to access embryonic stem cells

.- A new and promising scientific technique may satisfy researchers who want embryonic stem cells without the moral dilemma of destroying the embryo, says ethicist Fr. Thomas Berg.  A recent study published in this week’s issue of Nature suggests scientists are closer to devising ways of getting stem cells with qualities like those of embryonic stem cells, but without destroying embryos in the process.

“I see it as a potential breakthrough,” said Fr. Berg, the director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Catholic think-tank based in Thornwood, N.Y. “This kind of research is directing us away from the moral impasse over embryo destructive research and toward solutions we can all live with.” 

Nature reported that MIT researchers Alexander Meissner and Rudolf Jaenisch are the first to use a technique called altered nuclear transfer (ANT) in laboratory mice to derive a line of “fully competent” mouse embryonic stem cells. This stem-cell line did not come from a normal mouse embryo but from a biologically engineered source that appears to lack the organization necessary to be a mouse embryo.

How would the technique work for humans? A normal adult body cell is genetically modified. In its nucleus, genes essential for normal embryo formation are drastically altered. This cell is then implanted in an egg with its nucleus removed. “Theoretically, the resultant product of the procedure would not be an embryo, but a disordered biological artifact, capable of yielding stem cells, but otherwise on its way to becoming something akin to a tumor,” explained a press release from the institute. 

The stem cells derived in this process are called “pluripotent” because they give rise to all cell tissue types in an organism.

While previously thought to exist only in five- or six-day-old embryos, Fr. Berg said scientific evidence is mounting to show that pluripotent cells can be found in human umbilical cord blood and bone marrow.

“Scientists who still want embryonic stem cells, but want to avoid the moral controversy, could have good reason to be satisfied with such an alternative,” he said. 

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