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  • Paul Stark

Minnesota's research funding should respect the worth of all human beings

Regenerative Medicine Minnesota (RMM) was established by the state Legislature in 2014 to advance regenerative medicine therapies, which often involve stem cells. RMM recently announced the winners of 13 research grants for 2018-2020.

One grant winner is Alexander Revzin of the Mayo Clinic Medical School. The funding supports his research "engineering microcapsules for stem cell cultivation and transplantation." The research, according to Twin Cities Business, uses embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Its apparent ultimate goal is to better facilitate the use of human ESCs to treat patients.

RMM's decision to support this work is problematic for two reasons. First, acquiring ESCs for research requires the destruction of human embryos. And embryos, as the science of embryology has established, are living human organisms—individual members of the species Homo sapiens—at the earliest (embryonic) stages of their development.

"[E]ach member of the human species indeed starts his or her existence as one cell, the zygote [a one-cell embryo]," explains Dr. Micheline Mathews-Roth of Harvard Medical School. "[T]his fact applies whether the zygote was formed by the union of egg and sperm in the mother's body, or in a petri dish in the process of [in vitro fertilization], or by the processes of reproductive or therapeutic cloning."

Human beings ought to be treated with respect regardless of their age, size, appearance, ability, location, or method of origin. They are not a natural resource to exploit. They are not things whose useful parts we may harvest for our own purposes. They are human beings. Embryos are what we all once were. Each one of them is one of us.

RMM should not fund research that requires the deliberate ending of human lives.

The second problem with the Revzin grant is that there's no compelling scientific or medical rationale for continued ESC research. The prospect of using ESCs to treat patients has faced a number of serious obstacles, including the tendency of the cells to form tumors and the danger of rejection by the patient's immune system.

By contrast, adult stem cells (ASCs)—taken from various adult tissues, umbilical cord blood, and other places, without harm to donors—have successfully treated human patients for many years. Researchers continue to find new ways to employ ASCs for the benefit of patients suffering from many different conditions.

Moreover, the development of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) has seemed to make ESCs scientifically obsolete. These cells have the same prized characteristic as ESCs (pluripotency), but creating them doesn't require the destruction of embryos. And iPSCs can be generated from a patient's own body so that there is less risk of immune rejection.

RMM's other grant selections point to the increasing dominance of non-embryonic research. One grant is for a clinical trial using ASCs from a patient's own fat tissue to treat spinal cord injury. Another grant supports a trial using ASCs to repair cartilage. One is for research to improve the effectiveness of iPSCs. And another is for research into the possible use of cord blood stem cells to treat infant brain injuries.

Yet another RMM grant supports research to increase the speed at which ASCs work in order to prevent infection after bone marrow transplants. And, finally, one grant is for research using a patient's own ASCs to create heart and vein valves.

Only the Revzin grant goes to embryonic research. That's just not where the action is.

In an article for the Mayo Clinic website back in 2012, Timothy J. Nelson, a stem cell scientist and director of Mayo's Regenerative Medicine Consult Service, noted that "use of [ESCs] has significantly declined due to the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells." Indeed, iPSCs, he explained, "may help researchers avoid the controversy that comes with embryonic stem cells and prevent immune system rejection of the new stem cells."

The article also pointed out that "the use of adult stem cells continues to be refined and improved." Researchers, Dr. Nelson said, "are discovering that these cells may be more versatile than originally thought, which means they may be able to treat a wider variety of diseases."

Nelson and three Mayo colleagues authored an article in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings arguing that the advent of iPSCs "obviates many ethical and resource-related concerns posed by [ESCs] while prospectively matching their potential for scientific use." They agreed with James Thomson, the discoverer of human ESCs, who acknowledged that the creation of iPSCs means that ESCs "will turn out to be a historical anomaly."

"When the question is as truly important and fundamental as the nature of the human being," added Dr. Nelson and colleagues, "perhaps it is best not to plow continually ahead in the name of scientific progress."

They're right. There is a more ethical and therapeutically beneficial way to go—a way that respects the worth of both those who are sick and disabled and those who are young and vulnerable to exploitation.

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