August 26, 2006

‘Ethical’ Embryo Stem Cells Still Horrify Vatican

By Phil Stewart

VATICAN CITY -- The Catholic Church is rejecting claims in the United States of new "embryo-safe" stem-cells, pouring cold water on hopes by many scientists of ending ethical uproar over their research.

A U.S. company says it has developed a way to create the stem cells without harming the original embryo, which the Vatican holds is a full-fledged human life.

The breakthrough technique was meant to answer critics at the papal palace, the White House and beyond, who have long argued that it was ethically reproachable to attempt to save one life by taking another.

But the head of the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, told Reuters in an interview that the new method by Advanced Cell Technology Inc. failed to overcome the Church's many moral concerns.

Sgreccia said the procedure was wrong footed from the start -- experimenting with embryos is reprehensible, as is use of "unnatural" in-vitro embryos created at fertility clinics, like the ones the U.S. scientists employed in their research.

Advanced Cell Technology Inc. then made things worse by extracting what could be a "totipotent" cell, Sgreccia said.

"This is not just any cell, but a cell capable of reproducing a human embryo," Sgreccia said. He added that, in effect: "a second embryo is being destroyed."

Across the Atlantic, Richard Doerflinger, a bioethics expert with the U.S. Conference of Bishops, has accused the scientists of "killing" 16 embryos during their research.

Since stem cells can turn into any can develop into any kind of body tissue, medical researchers believe they can lead to tailored treatments for diseases including cancer and diabetes.

The Advanced Cell scientists, led by Robert Lanza, let its embryos grow to the 8- to 10-cell stage before removing one cell. They then grew stem cells from that single cell.

Lanza says the embryos, after such a procedure, still can be implanted in women with the potential to develop normally.

"For most rational people, this removes the last rational objection for opposing this research," Lanza said.

But Sgreccia said there was also no way that Lanza could ensure that embryos which had cells extracted could later go on to develop normally.

He urged them to look into other promising avenues, including adult stem cell research, accepted by the Church.

"Even if it didn't damage the embryo, it's still an issue of an invasive, unjustified operation on a human being ... You're going in, taking a piece of a embryo's organism to use for yourself," he said.

For Professor John M. Harris, Professor of Bioethics, University of Manchester, the debate over stem-cell research will not be resolved through scientific advance. The issue, ultimately, is a ideological one.

"The use of embryonic cells will only become non-controversial when it is accepted that the early embryo is of little or no moral significance," Harris said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Hirschler in London and Jim Finkle in Boston)