Catholics learn about stem cells - Catholic Courier

Catholics learn about stem cells

VICTOR — Many area Catholics are brushing up on their knowledge of stem-cell research and related church teachings as the Diocese of Rochester gears up for its annual Public Policy Weekend Feb. 11-12. Ethically acceptable stem-cell research is this year’s parish-based public-policy advocacy goal, so that weekend parishioners will be asked to sign petitions urging legislators to use state tax dollars to promote adult stem-cell research and prohibit embryonic stem-cell research.

Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator, gave a presentation on “Scientific Advancements and Ethical Dilemmas in Stem Cell Research” Jan. 11 at St. Patrick’s Parish in Victor. She was scheduled to give the same presentation Jan. 17 at St. Francis Parish in Phelps.

During her Jan. 11 presentation, Armantrout explained that scientists in the field of regenerative medicine conduct stem-cell research in hope of finding ways to repair human tissues that have been damaged by injury or illness, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases.

She noted that there are two types of stem cells: adult and embryonic. Embryonic stem cells are taken from embryos that are up to 14 days old, she said. These cells can develop into any type of bodily tissue and are able to renew indefinitely. Yet, so far, Armantrout noted, researchers have not had any success in using embryonic stem cells to treat humans. In addition, the process of removing stem cells destroys the embryos from which they are taken, she added.

Meanwhile, Armantrout pointed out, adult stem cells already have been used to treat more than 50 diseases, including previously fatal blood diseases, and also have been used in experimental treatments for patients with spinal-cord injuries, diabetes and heart disease. Derived from the tissues of infants and children as well as adults, so-called “adult” stem cells are able to transform into different tissue types within certain categories and can renew for extended periods of time, she said. Patients’ own stem cells are used for these treatments, so their bodies usually don’t reject the cells.

Adult stem cells also can be found in the by-products of childbirth, including umbilical-cord blood. And the stem cells found in umbilical-cord blood seem to have some of the characteristics of embryonic stem cells, she added.

Many people mistakenly think the Catholic Church is opposed to all forms of stem-cell research, and the media often perpetuates this misconception, Armantrout observed. In reality, the church actually supports research on adult stem cells, she noted.

The church does, however, oppose research on embryonic stem cells because the destruction of an embryo is the destruction of a human life, she said.

During her presentation, Armantrout also explained somatic-cell nuclear transfer, a process through which embryos are cloned. Some scientists hope this technology eventually will enable them to generate replacement cells, tissues and organs for patients, she said. In July, Korean Dr. Hwang Woo-suk claimed he had successfully cloned human cells, and although his claim was discredited in December, the successful cloning of human cells is probably not far away, Armantrout noted.

“It’s just a matter of time until someone clones a human being. People believe it will be done soon,” she said.

In an attempt to establish some ethical limits on future research, some scientists have claimed they would only clone embryos for research purposes, and that they would never place a cloned embryo in a woman’s uterus, Armantrout said. A Cornell University researcher recently developed an artificial womb, however, and implanting a cloned embryo into an artificial uterus would allow the gestation of a genetically matched human being whose cells, tissues and organs could be harvested for a patient. Although technology is progressing rapidly in these areas, the Catholic Church remains staunchly opposed to human cloning, she said.

Although the church is against human cloning, if a cloned child eventually was born, Catholics would be called to show that child the same love and respect they would show any other human being, Armantrout said. The church believes human life is a gift from God, and it’s impossible to justify taking one person’s life for the benefit of another, she added.

John Stavisky, who attended the presentation with his daughter, Julianne, a St. Patrick’s parishioner, noted that the media doesn’t always make a clear distinction between adult and embryonic stem cells. Until Armantrout’s talk, Stavisky, who is not Catholic, said he hadn’t fully understood this distinction or the church’s position on the issue.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “Some of it has been cleared up in my mind.”

Julianne Stavisky said she found Armantrout’s presentation extremely informative. Now that she’s armed with information, she said she plans to follow the issue more closely and engage in more dialogue about it with family members, friends and colleagues.

“It’s a topic I get a lot of questions about as a young Catholic,” she said.

St. Patrick’s parishioners Nerina Bellinger, Martha O’Donnell and Jeanette Swanson said it was refreshing to learn about the church’s position, and they were impressed with the way Armantrout presented and defended that position.

“She explained how as Catholics we’re called to respect life from its beginning to its natural end. I think I will stay more in touch with the (stem-cell) legislation that’s going through,” Bellinger said.

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