Peering into the Future of Stem Cell Research

Interview with Geneticist Giovanni Neri

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MILAN, Italy, NOV. 19, 2001 (ZENIT.orgAvvenire).- A new book outlines the great medical advances offered by stem cells extracted from human beings without destroying embryos.

«Science, Technology and Respect for Man: The Case of Stem Cells» (published by Vita e Pensiero under the title «Scienza, Tecnica e Rispetto dell´Uomo: Il Caso delle Cellule Staminali») includes the contributions of doctors and bioethicists of the Catholic University of Milan.

In his article in the book, Giovanni Neri, director of the university´s Institute of Genetic Medicine, addressed the issue of stem cell research.

Neri first explained the debate over the term «pre-embryo.»

«Fifteen years ago, some researchers introduced the concept ´pre-embryo,´ to indicate the first two weeks of development following the union of gametes,» he recalled.

«Today this expression is not accepted in biology, which instead states that, from the moment the gametes unite until the individual [is formed], there is no break in continuity,» he stated. «Therefore, the expression ´pre-embryo´ is used, without a biological basis, for other reasons.»

He continued: «The Warnock report, the first in Great Britain to address these questions juridically, did not question the continuity of the embryonic development, however, it allowed experimentation up to the 14th day after conception ´in order to calm the public´s concern.´»

–Q: These tacit conventions on the embryo, whose dignity is not recognized in the early phases, in some cases justify experimentation with embryonic stem cells. Who exerts pressure in this respect?

–Neri: Great Britain is the most liberal country, where embryos may be produced for research.

In the United States we have heard Bush´s «no.» Embryos will not be produced for research with federal funds; it is not even permitted to use frozen embryos in public laboratories. Only private research will be able to use embryos produced and frozen in the past. It is possible that this will create a «market» of embryos for research.

In any event, Bush´s decision has avoided many problems. If the United States had said «yes,» there was a risk of going much further. Moreover, the limits established by politics now seemed to be shared by most researchers.

Instead, I fear a tactic of small steps, of «done deeds,» to discover one day that we have gone much further than we thought.

–Q: Stem cell research awakens strong economic interests …

–Neri: Certainly, and the moment they perceive the practical, lucrative applications — as, for example, «spare» tissue banks — the pressure on research could be very strong.

–Q: Hence, the hypothesis of tissue banks to repair our bodies one day is not unfounded?

–Neri: No. And I think that Catholics, instead of fighting the «no,» would do well to support alternative research, in particular, on non-embryonic stem cells, obtained from the umbilical cord, or fetal or adult tissues, as does, for example, professor Salvatore Mancuso of the Catholic University of Rome.

The stem cells of the umbilical cord of newborns are frozen, with the hope of having a «bank» one day to which a person can take recourse.

–Q: However, is not the potential of embryonic stem cells much higher than that of adults?

–Neri: No, it´s not true. Research on adults´ stem cells, which in man can be extracted from the medulla, the brain, the liver, promises great potential.

Although it is true that an adult´s cell is not «almighty» when it comes to curing degenerative sickness such as Parkinson´s, to have cells that are already «oriented» is an advantage, not a limitation.

–Q: And to produce, instead, organs that are perfectly compatible with the recipient?

–Neri: In this case, embryonic stem cells are necessary. The procedure would be the same as that used with Dolly, the sheep, namely cloning through transference of the nucleus.

The nucleus of a somatic cell of the patient is inserted in the ovum cell deprived of its nucleus. Once blastocyst occurs, the cells from the internal mass are extracted from such an embryo to obtain analogous stem cells to those of the patient.

–Q: Obviously, this technique goes against all ethical principles. How can this sacrificed embryo be described?

–Neri: It would be a clone, with the genetic patrimony of the sole recipient of the organ.

–Q: Have experiments of this type been done on man?

–Neri: No, at least not officially.

–Q: This extreme research causes much terror in some of its applications. If laboratories go down this route, what will they achieve, let´s say, in the short term, when we are old?

–Neri: Within 30 years, perhaps some degenerative sicknesses might be curable. However, only for a few, for an elite of the sick. Not even for all Westerners but only for the wealthiest.

The resources are not infinite and it is clear that public health will not be able to afford extremely sophisticated treatments. I´m afraid that it will be very few fortunate ones who will benefit from this research. Perhaps we are creating a chimera: a very long and healthy life but only for the privileged few.

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