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ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Prompts A Deeper Look at Stem Cell Research


Gene Tarne - published on 09/09/14

You'd be amazed at the progress to date in treating patients using adult stem cells vs. nada from embryonic.

However unintentionally, the ALSIce Bucket Challenge has again focused attention on the ethical problems inherent to human embryonic stem cell research (hESCR).  

At the same time, the challenge provides an opportunity to highlight the very real progress being made to provide therapeutic benefits for patients in research utilizing ethically non-contentious adult and other non-embryonic stem cells—for ALS and many other diseases.

The ethical hurdle that hESCR cannot overcome is that in order to obtain hESCs, a living human embryo must be destroyed; destruction of human life is inherent to the research. The Vatican is clear in its rejection of such research:

“The obtaining of stem cells from a living human embryo … invariably causes the death of the embryo and is consequently gravely illicit: ‘research, in such cases, irrespective of efficacious therapeutic results, is not truly at the service of humanity. In fact, this research advances through the suppression of human lives that are equal in dignity to the lives of other human individuals and to the lives of the researchers themselves. History itself has condemned such a science in the past and will condemn it in the future, not only because it lacks the light of God but also because it lacks humanity’ ” (at no. 32 and quoting Benedict XVI).

And in a 2003 address St. John Paul II told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that “any treatment which claims to save human lives, yet is based upon the destruction of human life in its embryonic state, is logically and morally contradictory, as is any production of human embryos for the direct or indirect purpose of experimentation or eventual destruction.”

As is well known by now, the ALS Association (ALSA) is funding at least one hESCR project, causing many would be donors to seek other organizations for their contributions —a response demonstrating that concerns over the ethical problems inherent to hESCR have not diminished since hESCs were first isolated in 1998.  

But ALS support for hESCR goes beyond this one project. ALS describes itself as an “active member” of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR, now the Alliance for Regenerative Medicine), a major advocate for hESCR. Early in the Obama administration, ALSA posted a statement urging the new administration to lift restrictions on federal funding of hESCR and posted a link to a letter from CAMR that urged the same.

In addition, ALSA has also directed money to the Northeast ALS (NEALS) Consortium, which is funding a study that uses cells derived from an aborted fetus.

As news of ALSA support for hESCR spread, the organization issued a statement attempting to clarify its position. While the statement did not disavow support for hESCR, it was at pains to distance ALSA from it. The statement noted that ALSA is funding only one hESCR project; that the project is funded by a single individual; and that it uses a hESC line established years ago. “In fact,” the statement continues, “donors may stipulate that their funds not be invested in this study or any stem cell project” (emphasis in the original).

ALSA also scrubbed a page on its website entitled “A Primer on Stem Cells.” The original page, as of 8/19/14, included language on the necessity hESCR:

“Adult stem cell research is important and should be done alongside embryonic stem cell research as both will provide valuable insights. Only through exploration of all types of stem cell research will scientists find the most efficient and effective way to treat diseases.”

By 8/26/14, after news spread that ALSA funds hESCR, that

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