Stem Cells and Therapeutic Genetics

The announcement by South Korean researchers
that they have successfully produced embryos by cloning and then extracting
their stem cells raises potential for alleviating great human suffering, and
potential for therapeutic treatment of genetic conditions that cause great
suffering and even death. How we engage in the discussion about these therapies
is not only important, it is a key to the future of genetic research in this
country.

The news that South Korean geneticists have produced embryos by cloning and then extracting their stem cells while we’re debating the teaching of evolution in the United States should be a caution flag for all concerned about medical knowledge, the conversation about ethics and the future of cutting edge medical research in this country.

The politicizing of scientific knowledge diverts attention from fundamental and extremely important issues that shape how we define humanity, and, in this instance, whether we treat genetic conditions that cause great human suffering. President Bush has said he will veto a bill to loosen restrictions on stem cell research in the U.S. That won’t stop the advance of the knowledge that is being gained by South Korean scientists, nor change the conversation about ethical decisions these procedures raise.

If the South Korean advance results in the ability of geneticists to practice therapeutic genetics, citizens from around the world will seek treatment. Scientists have been looking for ways to deliver so-called vectors–cells carrying modified genetic materials that could ostensibly alter deficient genetic information–through stem cells. When the stem cells are successfully implanted and reproduce, they replicate and alter the metabolic process. The hope is that by replacing missing genetic information normal metabolism can be restored. But it’s best to use one’s own stem cells since they aren’t rejected as “foreign.” They replicate and permanently change the metabolic process that is the root of the disabling condition.

The South Korean process is described as efficient and reliable. I think this means the genie is out of the bottle. But it raises great ethical questions while holding equally great promise to prevent extreme suffering and even death. Balancing the two will require serious and informed discussion.

This conversation needs to occur outside the spotlight of the political rhetoric that has framed the debate about stem cell therapy in the U.S. in the past couple of years. Informed and compassionate thought must be given to the many issues this subject raises. We must not allow those who have politicized evolution to do the same with this issue. It’s far too important to be dragged into the arena where slogans replace serious dialogue.

The suffering caused by some genetic conditions is debilitating and extreme. Until recently there was no treatment for these conditions. Therefore, treating them and giving those who suffer a better quality of life is an ethical thing to do. There is no black and white choice in these circumstances, only shades of gray. Therefore, we need to consider therapeutic genetics in a careful, reasoned and sensitive discussion.

Moreover, the restrictions on stem cell research in the U.S. will not stop the development and utilization of this knowledge elsewhere. It only puts U.S. researchers behind. This, too, is an ethical issue. It means patients in the U.S. will not receive the benefit of these advances if the treatments are prohibited. In addition, it means the development of knowledge and life-saving research will not go forward.

This is a matter mainline Christians must be engaged in because it’s a significant ethical issue that will shape the human community in the future. And, many of the beneficiaries of new life-saving therapies are families within the parishes of mainline churches. This is about us, it’s not about arcane genetics charts, it’s about human beings and preventing unrelieved suffering.

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