Variations on Stem Cell Research

In the past several years, there have been several studies that have claimed to end the debate on stem cell research. In an effort to appease both proponents and opponents of human embryonic stem cell research, scientists have developed ways to create cells that appear embryonic, yet they claim, are not. Many pro-life organizations hailed these developments as “pro-life,” but closer examination reveals that they are not as “pro-life” as some would like to believe.

iPS Stem Cells

Second Yamanaka study and UCLA used aborted fetal and embryonic stem cells

In November 2007 separate scientific studies by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and Dr. James Thomson claimed to end the moral debate on embryonic stem cell research. Both scientists introduced genes into adult stem cells through a lentivirus, which reprogrammed them to become “embryonic” or induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, without destroying human embryos. However, an inherent problem of embryonic stem cells is their propensity to form cancerous tumors and the reprogrammed iPS cells proved to be no different. Scientists believed they would eventually get around that problem.

On February 14 and 15 two more studies were published on reprogramming adult stem cells: the first by UCLA’s Dr. Kathrin Plath using neonatal foreskin cells; the second by Dr. Yamanaka, using mouse liver and stomach cells, in which he claimed to overcome the problem of tumor formation. Unfortunately, pro-lifers have hailed their work as a moral victory prematurely, because like the November studies, both researchers used fetal cells of aborted babies and embryonic stem cells in the reprogramming method.

As in his first study, Dr. Yamanaka used PLAT-E cells in the retrovirus for reprogramming mouse liver and stomach cells. PLAT-E cells are a derivative of HEK (human embryonic kidney) 293, obtained from an electively aborted baby.

In the UCLA study, Dr. Kathrin Plath used the Phoenix-A aborted fetal cell line in her retrovirus and then cultured the reprogrammed foreskin cells on embryonic stem cells. However, non-objectionable animal, synthetic or ethically obtained human cells could have been used to produce the DNA needed for transformation quite efficiently. Likewise, Plath’s use of embryonic stem cells as a culture medium was unwarranted, though most likely an attractive choice considering the extensive funding UCLA receives for embryonic stem cell research. Such cell lines are plentiful in her labs.

Further, while some allege the iPS cells would eliminate immune rejection problems in patients, foreign DNA from both the retroviruses and from the DNA segments of embryonic/fetal cells attached to them, render such cells clinically useless and dangerous. Additionally, the studies by Yamanaka were performed in reproductively cloned chimeric mice and while none of the 65 subjects developed tumors, Yamanaka notes that some of the mice died for “unknown reasons.” Thus it is ludicrous to believe these cells would somehow be suitable for human applications from both medical and moral perspectives. Yet unless pro-life groups voice their disdain now while the research is still in infancy stages, one should not be surprised when clinical applications do emerge that utilize deliberately destroyed human beings. Aborted fetal vaccines are proof enough of what happens when science moves forward morally unchallenged.

Still the question remains, why are we trying to transform a perfectly good adult cell into a carcinogenic embryonic stem cell fraught with ethical and medical problems in the first place, when adult stem cells have already proven clinical success in over 3,500 patients? For the answer, all one needs to do is follow the money, the patents and especially the politics.

Debi Vinnedge is executive director of Children of God for Life, a pro-life watchdog group focused on the use of aborted fetal cells, embryonic stem cell research and human cloning. It is an Associate group of American Life League.

Dr. Yamanaka, “Induction of Pluripotent Stem Cells From Adult Human Fibroblasts By Defined Factors,” 

Dr. James Thomson, “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell Lines Derived From Human Somatic Cells,”

Dr. Kathrin Plath, “Generation of Human Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells From Dermal Fibroblasts,” 

Dr. Yamanaka, “Generation of Pluripotent Stem Cells from Adult Mouse Liver and Stomach Cells,”


Because of the perceived medical benefits from the use of human embryonic stem cells, there is great pressure today to pursue this line of medical experimentation. The principal moral impediment to the pursuit of this line of inquiry results from the fact that the only source of human embryonic stem cells always results in the destruction of living human embryos. We at American Life League have reviewed the proposal of Dr. William Hurlbut, Altered Nuclear Transfer-Oocyte-Assisted Reprogramming (ANT-OAR). This proposal has elicited great interest especially among those objecting to the destruction of human embryos as the killing of human beings. While there are no ethical quandaries in conducting this research using non-human diploid cells and human gametes, such is not the case for using human diploid cells and human gametes.

A number of serious moral issues emerge which must be addressed in light of the teachings of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. In a recent publication, Dr. Hurlbut has stated that the technique of somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT) holds out a wider range of scientific and medical promise for the production of human embryonic stem cells than other methodologies. It must be noted that the term SCNT means simply the cloning of an organism whether human or non-human. If the originator of this proposal sees that cloning is an essential feature of this technology, then the morality of the act of human cloning must be taken into consideration. The teaching of the Catholic Church on this matter is very clear.

Donum Vitae 1, 4: “If the embryos are living, whether viable or not, they must be respected just like any other human person; experimentation on embryos which is not directly therapeutic is illicit.”

Donum Vitae 1, 4: “To use human embryos or fetuses as the object or instrument of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity’s human beings having a right to the same respect that is due to the child already born and to every human person.”

Donum Vitae 1, 5: “It is therefore not in conformity with the moral law deliberately to expose to death human embryos obtained in vitro.”

Donum Vitae 1, 5: “It is immoral to produce human embryos destined to be exploited as disposable ‘biological material’”

Donum Vitae 1, 6: “Also, attempts or hypotheses for obtaining a human beings without any connection with sexuality through twin fission, cloning, or parthenogenesis are to be considered contrary to the moral law, since they are in opposition to the dignity both of human procreation and of the conjugal union.”

Donum Vitae 1, 6: “Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance are not therapeutic but are aimed at producing human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities. The manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his or her integrity and identity. Therefore, in no way can they be justified on the grounds of possible beneficial consequences for future humanity. Every person must be respected for himself; in this consists the dignity and right of every human being from his or her beginning.”

C. Ward Kischer, Ph.D., emeritus professor of Human Embryology, has stated: “It appears that within the experimental protocol of ANT-OAR some blastomeres may not have been genetically modified and would likely be totipotent. Such a totipotent blastomere would indeed be equivalent to a human zygote who is a human embryo.” If it is argued that the purposeful mutilation of the nucleus aimed at preventing the embryo from growing and reproducing has as its result the coming to be of a being that is not an embryo, what must be understood is the purposeful intention of the experimenter: clearly, to induce this deformation of the human embryo. It can only be judged that the demise of the human embryo is the direct result of the willful intent of the researcher which constitutes an action with no therapeutic benefit to the human embryo.

We recall the words of Pope John Paul II in 1982 to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: “I condemn, in the most explicit and formal way, experimental manipulations of the human embryo, since the human being, from conception to death, cannot be exploited for any purpose whatsoever.” The Declaration on Procured Abortion in 1974 taught that even if a doubt existed concerning whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a grave sin to dare risk murder; likewise, we can say in regard to the ANT-OAR Proposal that if there were a doubt as to whether or not an experimental protocol generates a living human embryo, one is absolutely obliged to refrain from taking such actions which result in the mutilation and destruction of such human beings. David Prentice, Ph. D., a cell biologist, has stated: “This procedure creates—even if briefly—a severely disabled living human embryo that has had its developmental program sabotaged.”

CONCLUSION: There must be absolute certainty that no human embryo could exist before any research involving human diploid cells and human gametes can go forward as regards this experimental protocol.

See also:

Critiques of Altered Nuclear Transfer (ANT) and Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR)

Moral Dilemmas in Stem Cell Research: Is Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR) A Moral Procedure To Retrieve Embryonic Stem Cells?