Good News on Stem Cells

Finally, some good news: A front-page story that not only brings hope on an important and contentious issue, but may even find Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, religious believers and non-believers cheering with equal enthusiasm. Scientists in Japan and the United States have now found a way to reprogram skin cells back to an embryonic state.

Since 1998, when scientists first discovered how to generate human embryonic stem cells from embryos discarded by fertility clinics, stem cell research has become almost as controversial an issue as abortion. But if this new technique can be applied to humans — so far, it has been performed only on mice — the debate on stem cell research is over. If skin cells can be used to create stem cells, who will argue that it is necessary to destroy embryos for the same purpose?

This news comes at an interesting time, just as a bill to provide federal funds for embryonic stem cell research makes its way to the president for his signature. President Bush has made it clear that he will veto the bill, as he did similar legislation a few years ago. But not all Republicans support the president’s position. Among Republican presidential contenders, Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani support embryonic stem cell research. Those who support the research cite the benefits it could bring to millions of people suffering from degenerative and other diseases.

In the 2006 congressional races, Democrats were able to use some Republicans’ opposition to embryonic stem cell research to defeat them, most notably Sen. Jim Talent in Missouri. The tactics the Democrats used — especially ads by actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease — were effective, but irresponsible. The Democrats acted as if opposition to destroying embryos was tantamount to denying life-saving therapy to the sick and dying. But even the most ardent supporters of embryonic stem cell research in the scientific community acknowledge we are a long way from turning any such research into practical therapies for Parkinson’s, diabetes or any other disease.

Ironically, it was George W. Bush who provided the first federal funding of such research, when he approved federal money being used for research on existing stem cell lines in August 2001. Although researchers had been working in this area since 1998, President Clinton never saw fit to do the same thing in his two remaining years in office. But President Bush has never received any credit on this from the supporters of stem cell research, only recriminations from opponents of such research, who thought his actions violated the sanctity of human life.

There is no way to know at this point whether the new research will bear fruit. One of the problems is that the mice used in Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s research had to be interbred — not exactly an option for humans. In addition, two of the four genes Dr. Yamanaka used to reprogram skin cells into an embryonic state also seem to trigger cancer. One-in-five of the mice used in experiments died of cancer. Scientists are hopeful they can discover ways to mitigate these effects, but it’s impossible to know if they will succeed.

Nonetheless, this new research suggests — as opponents of experimental use of embryonic stem cells have claimed all along — that there are viable alternatives to destroying human embryos in order to save lives. For those who do not believe that human life begins at conception, the debate over embryos has never made sense. But for observant Catholics — and many others who share Catholics’ belief that the moment a human egg is fertilized, a unique, fully human life is present — this debate touches on deeply held religious and moral values.

Both sides believe they are on the side of saving lives. It would be wonderful — dare I suggest, Providential — if science could help close the divide between them by finding a new way to conduct potentially life-saving research without destroying life in the process.