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Stem cell rift among Vatican experts

NCR Staff

A new method of stem cell research, heralded here in recent weeks as a way to avoid ethical objections from the Catholic church, has generated an open rift among Vatican experts who deal with bioethical questions.

Stem cells occur in early stages of embryonic development and have the potential to produce virtually all types of specialized cells in the human body, thereby holding out hope for cure of illnesses caused by cell failure or damage to cells that do not repair themselves. Scientists believe that research on stem cells may hold the key to treatment of illnesses ranging from heart failure and Alzheimer’s disease to paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries.

The Catholic ethical view could prove critical as new treatments using stem cells develop and are proposed for use in Catholic-sponsored facilities around the world.

The debate here centers on whether the new method, known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” involves creation of an embryo capable of becoming a human being. Because Catholic moral teaching bans destroying human embryos or using them for experimentation, the church opposes stem cell research that could result in human embryos.

Some Vatican officials lean to the conclusion that the new method does not involve an embryo, while others are unconvinced.

The fracture, played out in the pages of the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, was triggered by the recent endorsement of the new method by an Italian commission whose 25 expert members included seven representatives of the Catholic church. In the commission’s Dec. 28 report, it described the new method as a church-friendly via italiana, or “Italian way,” in contrast to “therapeutic cloning” of embryos. “Therapeutic cloning” has found acceptance in Great Britain and other countries.

The commission is headed by Nobel prize-winning scientist Renato Dulbecco.

The two most widely used sources of stem cells are embryos developed in laboratories and aborted fetal tissue, but Catholic authorities have ethical objections to both. The Vatican holds that an embryo must be treated as a human being and cannot be created or destroyed in a laboratory or experimented upon. The use of aborted fetal tissue, according to Vatican teaching, involves “complicity” in abortion.

Stem cells can also be extracted from adults. They are found, for example, in bone marrow. John Paul II, in an Aug. 29 address to a congress of transplantation experts in Rome, urged use of adult cells as the proper method of stem cell research.

According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, however, use of adult stem cells has drawbacks. Among them: Adult stem cells take a longer time to find and reproduce, reducing their usefulness in treating certain acute illnesses; adult stem cells are more limited in their capacity to develop into the specialized cells required for treatment; and adult stem cells may reproduce the same genetic defects doctors are trying to treat.

For these reasons, many scientists insist that research should go forward on embryonic stem cells.

In contrast, “somatic cell nuclear transfer,” the alternative endorsed by the Italian commission, involves injecting a nucleus from an adult cell into a donor’s unfertilized egg from which the nucleus has been removed. The resulting fusion is then multiplied in a laboratory and used to derive new stem cells. So far the method has been used only with animals.

The seven Catholic members of the commission, including one cardinal -- Cardinal Ersilio Tonini of Ravenna, Italy -- joined in the recommendation to move forward with the nuclear transfer method. Initial Vatican reaction was warm. Italian theologian Gino Concetti, in-house moral expert for L’Osservatore Romano, praised the proposal as “substantially positive” in an article published Dec. 30.

“It is certainly not possible to say that stem cells, before they arrive at the formation of the embryo, should be considered in the same way as the embryo,” Concetti wrote. “In this way the via italiana of therapeutic cloning differs substantially from other nations that allow the possibility of producing embryos as sources from which stem cells are to be derived.”

Redemptorist Fr. Brian Johnstone, an Australian who teaches at Rome’s Alfonsiana Academy for moral theology, told NCR that Catholic scientists who support somatic cell nuclear transfer make a similar argument.

“They say that it is not an embryo because it is not the result of the fusion of a sperm and an egg cell,” he said. “Their view is that it’s very different than what results from sexual intercourse.”

Any sense of an impending Vatican embrace of the method, however, was undercut six days later by a full-page article in L’Osservatore Romano signed by Juan de Dios Vial Correa, a lay professor and president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Archbishop Elio Sgreccia, vice-president. In the Jan. 5 article, Correa and Sgreccia questioned the assertion that what is created in somatic cell nuclear transfer is not an embryo.

The cells produced in this process, the two authors observe, “have in the past been developed, at least in a certain number of cases and for certain species, into embryos similar to those derived from artificial insemination, capable of being implanted regularly … and of giving rise to a cloned animal.”

Correa and Sgreccia insisted that, in the absence of irrefutable proof that the cellular fusion could not develop into a human being, somatic cell nuclear transfer would be unacceptable.

Johnstone told NCR that the eventual position of the Catholic church is likely to hinge on this technical question of the cell’s capacity to become a human being.

“If it were empirically established that this entity would not, if implanted, develop and flourish as a human embryo does, then in principle the answer from the church could be yes,” Johnstone said.

The Dulbecco commission also recommended the use of so-called “surplus embryos” generated during in-vitro fertilization that are frozen, and, after a period of time, destroyed. The commission’s majority supported allowing researchers to use these embryos rather than discarding them.

The Catholic members issued a sharp dissent to this aspect of the commission’s report, echoed by the Vatican, on the grounds that laboratory exploitation of embryos weakens respect for human life.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, January 26, 2001