Do you want a longer, healthier life? Stem cell researchers believe they hold the key. They promise better lives, proclaiming, “Let us continue our research using embryonic stem cells and we will cure diabetes, Parkinsons, spinal cord injuries, and . . . ”; the list goes on. Hollywood stars and former first ladies promote the merits of embryonic stem cells. And who would deny the diabetic, the spinal-cord injured, or the Parkinsons patient the hope of a cure in the near future?
Many people, including Christians, are confused by media accounts and by politicians. So let’s answer some questions about stem cells and stem cell research, the implications, and Biblical principles that apply.
What is a stem cell?
Maureen L. Condic, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah, defines it this way: “The term ‘stem cell’ is a general one for any cell that has the ability to divide, generating two progeny (or ‘daughter cells’), one of which is destined to become something new and one of which replaces the original stem cell.”1
A stem cell by definition, therefore, is a cell that has not specialized into its final role within the organism. Science calls a cell in that state an undifferentiated cell. After a cell has differentiated (specialized) into its final form—for example, a blood cell, a muscle cell, or a nerve cell—the cell is locked into that form until it dies. When a stem cell divides, either it begins the process of differentiation into a specific cell type or it remains a stem cell. The following diagram demonstrates this concept:
What many people do not realize—and the media does not always tell the public—is that two main types of stem cells exist: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are found in a fertilized human egg that is several days old. After five days, the fertilized egg cell becomes a blastocyst, a hollow ball made up of approximately 250 cells. The embryonic stem cells are the inner group of cells in the ball. Every diverse type of cell that the human body requires to function properly is produced from this tiny mass of cells. Embryonic stem cells are considered totipotent, capable of producing any kind of cell the organism needs. These stem cells must initiate a complex and coordinated series of events that culminate in a living human baby. Condic explains those events this way:
If a developing embryo is not to end up a mass of disorganized tissues, it must do more than generate adult cell types. Embryos must orchestrate and choreograph an elaborate stage production that gives rise to a functional organism. They must direct intricate cell movements that bring together populations of cells only to separate them again, mold and shape organs through the birth of some cells and the death of others, and build ever more elaborate interacting systems while destroying others that serve only transient, embryonic functions. Throughout the ceaseless building, moving, and remodeling of embryonic development, new cells with unique characteristics are constantly being generated and integrated into the overall structure of the developing embryo.2
How does this developing mass of cells know how to execute this incredibly complex building project? Did a designer create it and engineer the exact process needed to make a little liver, a heart, or even a fingernail? Psalm 139:14 reveals that, yes, a Designer was involved—and that Designer was God: “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.”
Adult stem cells (sometimes called somatic stem cells) are isolated from any tissue that is not embryonic tissue. They are considered pluripotent, capable of producing many but not all types of cells. Adult stem cells are found interspersed with differentiated cells in many types of tissue. After the technician harvests the adult stem cell, it is grown in a culture media and then induced to differentiate into a variety of mature cell types.3 A major portion of adult stem cell research deals with the problem of how the cell differentiates into a mature cell. The source list of adult stem cells and the diversity of those cells’ uses increases as more research is being conducted. Several sources of adult stem cells are noteworthy: cells collected from the brain, muscle, liver, thymus, mammary and salivary glands, heart, cartilage, bone marrow, hair follicles, nerve, pancreatic ducts, blood, umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, dental pulp of baby teeth, and fat cells. Geneticist Dr. David Prentice makes this comment in Jonathan Sarfati’s paper “Stem cells and Genesis”:
[A]dult stem-cell research . . . has already shown itself to be extremely promising for treating numerous degenerative diseases such as heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. Adult stem cells have been shown in animal models to repair heart damage, provide therapeutic benefit for stroke, and reverse diabetes. And adult stem cells have already been used successfully in human patients to relieve lupus, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis, to name a few.4
How could stem cells benefit mankind?
Many serious medical problems occur in the process of cell development. Researchers hope to better understand this process and perhaps attain the ability to correct these errors. Also, medicine today relies on donated organs and tissues to replace those that are diseased. The number of available organs is not sufficient to meet the needs of those who require transplants.
Four disadvantages of embryonic stem cells
Embryonic stem cells have the advantage of being totipotent. In theory they should be able to develop into all the different types of cells that the organism needs. As simple as that sounds, it is proving to be one of the main disadvantages in embryonic stem cell research. The process that the embryo must go through to knit cells together into smoothly working and precisely functioning tissues and organs is more than just “turning on” a cell and telling it to make this tissue or that organ. Multiple cells must “turn on,” then “turn off,” and then rearrange multiple times to produce the final perfect product. Research with embryonic stem cells has shown that process to be beyond our understanding at this time. Another disturbing consequence of using embryonic stem cells has been that once they are “turned on,” they are unable to be “turned off.” The result has been the development of rapidly growing tumors and other serious side effects.5
Embryonic stem cells are found only in a developing blastocyst and therefore have their own unique set of genetic characteristics. This leads to a third major disadvantage for using embryonic stem cells. The tissue that develops from an embryonic cell would always be considered a foreign entity within the body. If the cells were able to be used in some form of therapy, the patients receiving those embryonic stem cells would require immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives.
A fourth major disadvantage for using embryonic stem cells is that the use of stem cells derived from human embryos or human fetal tissue is ethically troublesome to many.
Three advantages of adult stem cells
Adult stem cells have the presumed disadvantage of being “only pluripotent,” thus limiting the ability of adult stem cells to differentiate into all types of mature working cells. In its list of medically viable uses for adult stem cells (see sidebar), Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics shows how that theoretical disadvantage might be considered the advantage for using adult stem cells.6 One could ask why the list for adult stem cell uses grows longer each day. The reason seems to be that adult stem cells are collected from living, functioning human beings. Adult stem cells know how to differentiate into working mature cells, for example, pancreatic cells for diabetes. Because of the growing number of sources of adult stem cells, the ability to differentiate into every known type of cell is not required. Differentiating into specific working cells is the only requirement.
A further advantage for using adult stem cells harvested from the individual that needs them is that they are not “foreign” cells; therefore, no immunosuppressant drugs would be required. Adult stem cells have shown a very low risk for cancer formation, which seems to indicate that they know how to “turn off” when the new tissue is completed. Finally, the accessibility of numerous types of adult stem cells is a positive advantage.
From a Biblical viewpoint, what are the ethical issues involved in stem cell research?
The Bible is clear about two key issues in this debate. Genesis 1:27 states that mankind is created “in the image of God.” Mankind is God’s image-bearer from the moment of conception until the moment of death. Embryonic stem cells are harvested from a fertilized egg cell. The outer covering of the fertilized egg, or embryo, is destroyed when the stem cells are captured within the blastocyst; consequently, the harvesting of embryonic stem cells effectively kills the embryo.
First, embryonic stem cell research obliterates the image of God built into that embryonic life. According to Psalm 51:5 and 139:13–16, when the egg cell becomes fertilized, at that very moment of conception a human life begins.
Second, Exodus 20:13 commands, “Thou shalt not kill” (KJV). The Hebrew word תרצח׃– ratsach has the idea of putting to death, or murdering, another human being. Therefore, the use of embryonic stem cells is a violation of God’s command to not kill another human being.
Using adult stem cells would not violate either of the key issues. In most cases adult stem cells would use the patient’s original cell material to direct that patient’s body in correcting an area that is not functioning properly.
What should you do with this information now that you understand the basics of stem cells?
President Bush has halted the development of any new embryonic stem cell lines. Therefore, the collection of any new embryos for the express purpose of harvesting their stem cells has been stopped. However, embryonic stem cell research with the existing lines will be continued. If a president with differing views is elected, this decision may be reversed. The following quote from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Stem Cell Information demonstrates the motives behind human embryonic stem cell research: “Because many academic researchers rely on federal funds to support their laboratories, they are just beginning to learn how to grow and use the cells. Thus, although human embryonic stem cells are thought to offer potential cures and therapies for many devastating diseases, research using them is still in its early stages” (emphasis added).7
The long-term effect of having no new embryonic stem cell lines will affect the debate over several moral issues of concern to Christians: abortion, euthanasia, cloning, the question over when human life begins, women selling their eggs, growing humans for body parts, quality of life, and selling body parts. For instance, because President Bush has limited embryonic stem cell collection related to moral and ethical problems, the debate over when life begins will continue. Then, if people believe that life begins at conception, should abortion (at any time in the fetal development) continue to be legal? In addition, human embryonic stem cell research will continue to be debated, since scientists and researchers refuse to accept the evidence that adult stem cells have shown. So our job as believers is to be discerning as we read or hear of stem cell research. For example, note the minimization of adult stem cell accomplishments in this quote from the NIH website:
Adult stem cells such as blood-forming stem cells in bone marrow (called hematopoietic stem cells, or HSCs) are currently the only type of stem cell commonly used to treat human diseases. Doctors have been transferring HSCs in bone marrow transplants for over 40 years. More advanced techniques of collecting, or “harvesting,” HSCs are now used in order to treat leukemia, lymphoma and several inherited blood disorders.
The clinical potential of adult stem cells has also been demonstrated in the treatment of other human diseases that include diabetes and advanced kidney cancer. However, these newer uses have involved studies with a very limited number of patients.8
What’s our conclusion?
The effects of sin in this world are compounded daily. For this reason humans suffer from devastating diseases, genetic disorders, and debilitating conditions. Results of adult stem cell research have offered a glimmer of hope for those suffering from these problems. Continued research into adult stem cell uses would, at this point, be the only ethically sound option for a Christian to support.
1 Maureen L Condic. “Adult Stem Cell Research Should Replace Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” Medical Ethics (2005), under “A Fascinating Process”, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/OVRC, (accessed January 31, 2007).
3 Ibid., under “Adult Stem Cells Are a Better Option.”
4 Jonathan Sarfati, “Stem cells and Genesis,” (12/2001), http://www.answersingenesis.org/tj/v15/i3/stemcells.asp, (accessed January 26, 2007).
5 Kelly Hollowell, “Ten Problems with Embryonic Stem Cell Research,” http://www.icr.org/articles/print/314, (accessed January 26, 2007).
6 “Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics,” http://www.stemcellresearch.org/facts/treatments, (accessed January 31, 2007).
7 “Stem Cell Basics: FAQ: Healthcare questions – Have human embryonic stem cells been used successfully to treat any human diseases yet?,” http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/faqs.asp, (accessed February 14, 2007).
James C. Calcamuggio is chair of the Division of Arts and Sciences at Pillsbury Baptist Bible College, Owatonna, Minnesota. He is a graduate of the University of Toledo, Central Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Institute for Creation Research Graduate School. A registered pharmacist, he also works part-time at the Owatonna Hospital pharmacy. He also regularly speaks to churches, teachers’ conventions, and civic groups on creation issues, science, and herbal medicines.