Freitag, 31. Mai 2013

Did the Vatican miss the opportunity to educate Stem Cell Researchers?

Regenerative Medicine: Fundamental Change in Science and Culture" was the title of a three-day conference, hosted in the Vatican, during the second week of April, 2013. Leading stem cell researchers presented their topics. Among them was Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Gurdon, who is convinced that humans should be cloned in order to cure diseases.
Dr. Edith Breburda

     Renowned stem cell scientists gathered in Rome for a conference sponsored and organized by NeoStem, a US biotechnology company, and by the Pontifical Council for Culture. The purpose of the meeting was to educate people about the coexistence between science and faith. Monsignor Tomasz, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture's Science and Faith put it as simply as that, “We would like to spread a message globally, to educate people, to reach our believers, our pastors, to let them know that don’t need to live with some fear. They don’t need to make a choice between science and faith.” in an interview with Lydia O'Kane for Vatican Radio on April 4.

     Many expected that the conference would explain the rationale behind the Catholic Church's teaching, it's objections to embryonic research including cloning. Instead only a 15-minute lecture was given regarding the ethical and moral concerns involved in that kind of research.
On Friday April 19, 2013, Ignacio Barreiro, Head of the Roman office of Human Life International, explained to Hilary White, from Life Site News, that it was expected from a company like NeoStem and other Scientists to focus on the pure scientific issues. But, with the Vatican involved in that conference the priorities should have been to focus more on the moral and ethical concerns, including the use of IPS cells. Many participants have been disappointed and called it even a missed opportunity to educate Stem cell researchers, concluded Msgr. Barreiro.

     Moreover, one of the keynote speakers was Dr. John Gurdon, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine, together with Shinya Yamanaka. Gurdon was a pioneer in cloning. In the 1950s he transferred the nucleus of frogs. Finally, his work led to the technique to obtain Induced Pluripotent Stem cells (iPS). Many hailed iPS cells, a method to convert skin back to an embryonic-like stem cell state, as the ethical alternative to human embryonic stem cells.

     Gurdon calls himself a Christian. Nevertheless the American Life League sees Gurdon's work as leading directly to human cloning and thus he never should have been a speaker of the conference. Actually, Gurdon's personal position on human cloning is positive. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph from December 2012 he said: “I take the view that anything you can do to relieve suffering or improve human health will usually be widely accepted by the public – that is to say if cloning actually turned out to be solving some problems and was useful to people, I think it would be accepted.” Furthermore he stated that cloning could be used by parents to bring “back to life” children who have died.

     Robert Smith, CEO of NeoStem considers not disdaining Dr. Gurdon and his colleagues, or the techniques of cloning, IVF, designer babies, human embryonic stem cells immoral and unethical. Scientists and supporters have changed their mind. "Organizers had focused on inviting the leading minds in the field, whatever their religious or ethical beliefs, in order to present to them the scientific case for the clinical successes of adult stem cells over embryonic cells. The purpose of the conference, she said, was not to gather scientists who already agree with the Church, but to “open up a dialogue between science and faith and different cultures and seeing what impact it will have on society."

     Smith pointed out that embryonic stem cells face scientific uncertainties, whereas adult stem cells are the only ones able to cure diseases. Researchers are interested in data, and efficacy. Their work is based on pure pragmatism.

     Smith continued: "Moreover, for companies like NeoStem, a Vatican stamp of approval opens a significant customer base. The relationship between the Vatican and NeoStem, and its non-profit educational foundation Stem for Life, was also one of pragmatic motives. The Pontifical Council for Culture approached the company, looking for a way to become involved in research that could be of medical benefit that would not violate the Church’s teaching on the sacredness of human life."
     Dr. Gurdon admitted in his lecture in Rome, that he knew nothing about ethics or politics. He referred to himself as an amateur.
Furthermore he explained: The ethical standard which is held by nearly everyone in the field of embryonic research, including many who claim affiliation with the Catholic Church, is, that up to 14 days of development, only a few cells in this early stage of embryo “will actually give rise to the embryo itself." “As has been said, up to that time, there is no nervous system, so the embryo cannot receive any sensation and can’t respond, so until that time, for people like myself, it seems that it is a group of embryonic cells without any definitive function at that time.”

     Fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, a American Dominican priest, moral theologian and molecular biologist told LSN that most scientists are utilitarian. Gurdons views about cloning... are nearly universal. In Father's mind the Vatican missed the opportunity to educate his colleagues who participated in that meeting. "A lot of people assume that the Church’s moral teaching is just arbitrary, and it has nothing to do with the way they think." We have had the opportunity to engage researchers who don’t even know that what they are saying is controversial," Fr. Austriaco stated. Monsignor Barreiro affirmed: “The purpose of the Catholic Church is to provide a moral guide. Especially given that many of those in attendance might never again have an opportunity to hear the explanation of Catholic teaching." (H. White, Vatican misses golden opportunity to evangelize stem cell scientists, April 18, 2012 LifeSiteNews).

     The book "Promises of New Biotechnologies" provides an example of excellent information on ethical issues in the context of important technologies. This engaging and easy to read book is meant for the layperson. It gives the reader tools and compelling arguments to be able to participate with ease in the most discussed topics in our times.

     William E May, who has written the Foreword speaks about a: "fascinating and important book on major issues in contemporary "bioethics". The literature examined in the book is by scientists at the forefront of the "new biotechnologies". It offers insights into the weighty "caveats" regarding the utopias "promised" by the developing biotechnologies."

     Foremost, we are facing a scientific dilemma. So far, pluripotent stem cells can "only" theoretically differentiate. Some scientists regard adult stem cell research as a valuable tool to gain insights for differentiation into diverse specialized cell types. And thus it is argued to "depend" on human embryonic stem cells research as the "Golden Standard". Alternatives, like somatic cells, display a very low reprogramming efficiency. Thus ethical boundaries play a minor part to disassociate the peoples' interest in stem cell research.
Besides iPS cells are losing their ethical and moral authenticity, when reprogrammed into egg and sperm cells, in order to clone new research embryos.

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