LIFE DIGEST: Stem cells from amniotic fluid may help avoid ethical dilemma

WASHINGTON (BP)--Scientists have announced the discovery of cells that have much the same potential as embryonic stem cells but without their ethical drawback, even as the House of Representatives prepares to vote again to fund experiments that destroy human embryos.

A team of researchers from Wake Forest University School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital in Boston found the stem cells in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women, according to The Washington Post. Unlike embryonic stem cell research, the extraction of the cells from the fluid that surrounds an unborn child does not require the destruction of a tiny human being. These cells have the ability to develop into a variety of tissues, a trait of embryonic stem cells, but do not have the tendency to form tumors, a propensity that has plagued research on cells from embryos.

The promising research, reported Jan. 7 in the online version of the journal Nature Biotechnology, was announced only days before the House is set to vote on a bill identical to one President Bush vetoed last year. The vote on the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, H.R. 3, is expected to take place by Jan. 11. The measure would provide federal funds for research using stem cells extracted from embryos stored at in vitro fertilization clinics.

“This study should put the brakes to the pro-embryo-destructive stem cell bill before Congress, but, sadly, in this case partisan politics is more likely to trump ethical science,” said C. Ben Mitchell, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in suburban Chicago and a consultant for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Not only is it unethical to kill embryos for their stem cells, it is unnecessary and undesirable.”

Last year, the House sought to override Bush’s veto but fell 51 votes short of the two-thirds majority required. This year, passage of the measure, which has 211 cosponsors, would appear to be a certainty, but it may again fall short of the votes for an override.

The report on the stem cells in amniotic fluid was welcomed as “wonderful news” by Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to The Post. The Catholic Conference opposes destructive embryonic research.

The announcement of the newly discovered cells, however, did not deter at least some stem cell researchers from their plans to pursue destructive experiments. “They are not a replacement for embryonic stem cells,” Harvard researcher George Daley told The Post.

The report, however, appeared to provide another blow to the years-long, and often misleading, media campaign on behalf of embryonic stem cell research. Research that destroys embryos has yet to treat any diseases in human beings.

Research using stem cells from non-embryonic sources, however, does not harm the donor and has produced treatments for at least 72 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These afflictions include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia. Non-embryonic sources of stem cells include umbilical cord blood, placentas, fat and bone marrow.

Stem cells are the body’s master cells that can develop into other cells and tissues.

Procuring stem cells from amniotic fluid is not risk-free. The extraction of the fluid, which is performed by a needle’s insertion through the abdomen into the amniotic sac, reportedly may present a risk to the unborn baby and a possible threat of infection to the mother. The procedure, known as amniocentesis, does not increase the rate of miscarriage during the fourth to sixth months of pregnancy, according to a study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, Reuters News Service reported in November.

Amniocentesis is performed often to detect birth defects. The testing of the fluid also can determine the baby’s sex.

The Jan. 7 report showed stem cells in amniotic fluid may be isolated as soon as 10 weeks after conception, according to The Post. The study’s leader, Anthony Atala of Wake Forest, said amniotic fluid stem cell donations from 100,000 women would supply enough cells for the tissues needed by virtually all Americans, The Post reported.

TARGETS IN THE WOMB -– A new proposal from a doctors organization will make some impaired children targets for killing in the womb, a Southern Baptist bioethicist said.

All pregnant women, no matter their age, should be offered testing for Down syndrome, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended Jan. 2. Previously, women 35 years and older were automatically offered testing for the condition, according to ACOG.

Down syndrome normally results when a person has three copies, rather than two, of chromosome 21. It has been estimated in recent years as much as 90 percent of unborn babies detected with Down syndrome are aborted.

C. Ben Mitchell, director of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, decried the proposal.

“In our cosmetic culture of death, ACOG's recommendation amounts to painting a bull’s-eye on Down children,” Mitchell told Baptist Press. “We must not allow the virtue of wanting to eliminate Down syndrome to mutate into the vice of destroying Down syndrome children in the womb.

“Parents need to decide what they plan to do with the information before they consent to the tests,” said Mitchell, a consultant for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “If abortion is not an option in their worldview, they will probably see no need in either the expense or inconvenience of the test. ‘No’ is a perfectly appropriate response to having the test.”

ACOG recommended screening occur before the 20th week of pregnancy. It proposed a type of ultrasound exam and a blood test for the general population of women in the first trimester of pregnancy. Women found in that screening to be at risk of having a child with Down syndrome should be offered the opportunity to choose either amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling.

Amniocentesis involves inserting a needle through a woman’s abdomen into the amniotic sac to withdraw fluid for testing. CVS also consists of extracting fluid for screening.

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