As New York state prepares to allocate $600 million in funding for stem-cell research, the Diocese of Rochester is rolling out a program to educate Catholics about the differences between adult and embryonic stem cells.
The diocese is sending brochures, copies of the DVD “The Science of Stem Cells: Finding Cures and Protecting Life,” and a letter from Bishop Matthew H. Clark to parishes throughout the diocese to help parishioners learn more about adult and embryonic stem cells. The effort is being supported by area Knights of Columbus councils and the Adult Stem Cell Initiative, a local group dedicated to promoting research on adult stem cells.
Stem cells are undifferentiated “master cells” that have the potential to transform into specialized cells, such as a skin, muscle or brain tissue. Stem cells could potentially repair and replace specific tissues, and may also be useful in refining disease treatments.
Catholic teaching supports research using so-called “adult” stem cells, which are derived from individuals who have been born. Adult stem cells are found in bone marrow, umbilical-cord blood and placentas, and can be collected without harming the donor. According to the brochure being distributed by the diocese, more than 70 diseases have been treated using adult stem cells.
However, Catholic teaching opposes research on embryonic stem cells, which are derived through the destruction of human embryos. Opponents of embryonic stem-cell research note that it has not produced any successful treatments of human disease to date, and that embryonic stem cells tend to form tumors.
“It is always wrong to use one person for the benefit of another, because human dignity is violated and basic human rights are denied,” Bishop Clark said in his video introduction to the stem-cell DVD. “These rights are not ours to confer. They are God-given.”
Catholic teaching also opposes such technologies as human cloning — also known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer” — in which the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is replaced with the nucleus of a donor cell, and then stimulated to grow into an organism that is genetically identical to the nucleus donor. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities points out that cloning creates life artificially and may lead to early death or the destruction of life for medical research.
In November 2007, several scientists announced a breakthrough in reprogramming already differentiated skin cells into undifferentiated stem cells, potentially bypassing the demand for further research using embryonic cells. Catholic groups hailed this development and have called for additional funding for research on this method.
This breakthrough is just one of the many aspects of stem-cell and cloning research about which the diocese hopes to educate Catholics through the DVDs and brochures.
Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator, said the Diocese of Rochester first got involved in the DVD two years ago, when St. Max Worldwide, a Catholic video-production company, approached her about participating in development of a stem-cell DVD commissioned by the Kansas Catholic Conference and later used by the Michigan Catholic Conference. Armantrout, who also serves as vice president of the local Adult Stem Cell Initiative, contributed to the DVD some materials she uses in educational presentations about stem cells.
The Diocese of Rochester recently pursued distributing its own version of the DVD after the New York created the Empire State Stem Cell Board and the Empire State Stem Cell Trust during eleventh-hour budget negotiations for the 2007-08 state budget, she said. The current year’s budget earmarked $100 million for stem-cell research, and the deal designated an additional decade of funding at $50 million per year.
This funding must be reallocated in each year’s state budget, but it is likely to continue, Armantrout noted, because Gov. David Paterson helped spearhead the state stem-cell board and trust fund during his term as lieutenant governor.
She said diocesan officials were glad to see the establishment of New York’s stem-cell board called for creation of two committees: one to address issues of finance, the other to address ethics.
However, Armantrout said she was distressed to learn that the board’s finance committee and then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer decided to ignore the ethics committee’s unanimous recommendation to impose a six-month moratorium on funding of controversial research until ethical guidelines could be written.
Thus, in January, prior to the release of ethical guidelines on stem-cell research, the state stem-cell board announced $14.5 million in funding for a wide range of stem-cell research and training. Among the institutions receiving $1 million one-year grants were Ithaca’s Cornell University and the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in Rochester.
Legion of Christ Father Thomas Berg, who sits on the ethics committee of the state stem-cell board, said the $14.5 million would not be used to create new stem-cell lines from human embryos, but that some of the funding may go to research on stem-cell lines that existed prior to 2001, when federal guidelines prohibited the federal funding of research on new embryonic stem-cell lines.
He noted that the ethics committee is only able to make nonbinding recommendations.
“In many ways, we are window dressing to give an appearance of ethical propriety to a board that has been created to churn out money as fast as humanly possible,” said the priest, who also is the executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.
“People were told the ethics will be considered,” Armantrout said. “I think the entirety of the state should be outraged by this.”
She added that ignoring ethical concerns could allow public funding of research that destroys human embryos; uses artificial uteruses; or creates hybrid or “chimeric” embryos by fusing DNA from humans with that of other species.
Although the funding statute said that no funds may be used directly or indirectly for research involving human reproductive cloning — cloning intended to bring organisms to birth — Armantrout said researchers may be legally permitted to use cloned humans for purposes of organ donation.
She noted that such controversial research also could divert funds away from ethically acceptable — and, thus far, more effective — research on adult stem cells.
“There are researchers here locally who are concerned that there is too much money and too much hype that continues to surround embryonic stem-cell research, to the detriment of adult stem-cell therapies,” said Armantrout, who urged parishioners to share their opinions with their state representatives.