The Path to Ethical Stem Cell Research

Following the passage of Proposition 71 in California, which created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) for the purpose of funding human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research, Robert Klein (chair of the CIRM governing committee) remarked, “There is no doubt in my mind that the mission Californians accepted today is a critical first step in changing the face of human suffering forever.” 

The desire to preserve others from their suffering or to ease it is certainly worthy. But the lure of treatments and cures of such a kind and on such a scale tests the hardihood of our moral commitments. Moreover, as Californians are quickly learning, the results of ethical shortcuts often fall far short of promises.

It’s worth recalling the vastness of those promises, even just a few short years ago. They range from former vice presidential candidate John Edwards’ prediction that the paralyzed would soon walk without aid to Michael J. Fox’s advocacy (a view he substantially recanted on May 24 of this year) of embryo-destroying research to address Parkinson’s disease. 

Our regard for the embryonic stage of human life had been in steady decline for decades, fostered by legal abortion and in vitro fertilization practices that led to the creation and destruction of untold numbers of new human beings worldwide. 

Adding near-miraculous medical advances to the exploitation of these tiny beings would devalue them in causes that could scarcely be opposed on their own merits. Utilitarianism of such a high-minded sort might well have proven irresistible.

The human embryo, according to the Pontifical Academy for Life, is “a human subject with a well-defined identity which from (the union of the gametes) begins its own coordinated, continuous, and gradual development.” 

By a wide margin in 2004, California voters rejected this notion in founding the CIRM. The agency was created with the understanding that hESCs were the solution to almost every medical problem imaginable and that it was the state’s responsibility to fund it. 

Authorized to issue $3 billion in grants over ten years, CIRM quickly became the largest source of funding for stem cell research outside the National Institutes of Health. Though the funds could be used to finance all kinds of stem cell research, special priority was given to hESCs. 

In 2007, the first year grants were made, CIRM issued $121 million for research involving hESCs, while virtually no funding went toward adult stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, or other non-controversial avenues of research.

The following year, priority was given again to hESCs, with $25,658,662 going to hESC research, nearly twice the amount granted to non-embryonic stem cell projects.

        Adult stem cells

In 2009 a marked shift in CIRM’s funding ventures became evident. That year, CIRM announced a new strategic plan that shifted focus toward projects that were most likely to lead to clinical trials and therapies. The plan stated that CIRM was eager to stimulate “the development of a scientific ‘pipeline to cures’ that bridges stem cell research from its discovery stages to its clinical applications.” 

With near-term results now the primary concern, a dramatic change occurred in the level of attention and funding devoted to adult stem cells and other non-controversial approaches.

Ethics and efficacy are now operating in tandem. Despite the hype surrounding them and the money being pumped into them, embryonic stem cells have yet to be found to have therapeutic benefit to patients. Despite a few modest results in animals and an early trial in Britain treating macular degeneration, not a single cure has been developed from the use of these cells. 

They are difficult to establish and maintain in the laboratory. Embryonic stem cells also have a strong potential for tumor formation and can even damage tissue – effects that might be expected from cells not intended to be present in mature human bodies.

Adult stem cells, however, harvested without ethical dilemma from sources including bone marrow and cord blood, continue to yield remarkable results. They have already successfully treated a wide variety of conditions, including cardiac disease, sickle cell anemia, and spinal cord injury. 

Dr. David Prentice, Senior Fellow for Life Sciences at the Family Research Council, has stated, “There is very little evidence that embryonic stem cells are effective in treating disease and healing tissue. In the meantime there are thousands of patients who have been successfully treated with their own adult stem cells.”

With a strong focus on research that actually has clinical application, the balance of the grant money being awarded by CIRM now continues to shift in favor of adult stem cells. This year $49,933,849 has gone to adult stem cell research, more than twice the $19,420,222 awarded to embryonic stem cell projects.

Additionally, 2012 marked the first time a CIRM-funded research project has resulted in new drug approval from the FDA. The drug is intended to repair damage caused by heart attacks and is the result of adult stem cell research.

The quest for miracles from human embryonic stem cells has so far resulted in the loss of money and the greater loss of innocent lives. Adult stem cells and similar alternatives offer, in contrast, a future filled with hope without ethical shortcuts. 

The late physicist and philosopher of science Stanley Jaki once remarked that science rests on verities that include “the existence of a world intrinsically ordered in all its parts and consistent in all its interactions.” The observation could well be applied to stem cells, where the types that already facilitate human healing can now be harnessed and hastened on their way – without ethical dilemmas – to even more dramatic success.

Chuck Donovan is president and Nora Sullivan is research assistant at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.