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Posted August 30, 2006

Vatican Criticizes New Stem Cell Procedure

It's Still Manipulation, Says Bishop Sgreccia

ROME, AUG. 28, 2006 - A new procedure in embryonic stem cell research that does not destroy the human embryo is drawing criticisms from the Vatican and Catholic bioethicists.

The scientific review "Nature" reported last week the results of an experiment carried out by Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in Alameda, California, in which stem cells were derived from a single-cell biopsy technique that left the human embryo intact. Earlier techniques destroyed the embryo.

Called Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis, this process is already used by in-vitro fertilization clinics to assess the genetic health of preimplantation embryos.

Tests were made on the extracted cells, and stable embryonic stem cells were developed, similar to those obtained from intact embryos which are destroyed in the process.

The Lanza group carried out the experiment, after testing it on mice, and on "spare" in vitro fertilization human embryos.

Artificial manipulation

Nevertheless, the new technique has yet to address the issue of manipulation that concerns Catholic bioethicists.

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said Sunday on Vatican Radio that "the announced experimentations continue to be in the terrain of in-vitro procreation, in the production of embryos in-vitro, or of cloning, or of artificial fertilization."

"That, from a point of view that is not only Catholic, but from a point of view of bioethical reasons, is a negative factor," he said.

"If the result expected -- to reproduce cells, not embryos, namely, only embryonic cells -- is the fruit of manipulation, of a process that otherwise would result in an embryo, the objection of an ethical standing remains entirely," Bishop Sgreccia said.

He said this because "such a result is obtained not by a biologically evolutionary process, but by an artificially produced process, so that it would be a question of 'artificiality upon artificiality.'"

Advanced Cell's method "doesn't solve the ethical problems" of manipulation, Sgreccia said.

The bishop also warned that such a "biopsy can also harm the embryo."

"Before being able to exclude all this, it is necessary to carry out appropriate experimentation on animals," he said.

Adult stem cells?

Bishop Sgreccia questioned the need to use human embryonic stem cells "when we already know that stem cells for therapeutic use can be obtained through normal stem cells of an adult individual, which we find in the umbilical cord or in different parts of the human body."

He continued: "A great race is on to undertake these experimentations on the human embryo, also because of the funds that are allocated, the obtaining of which makes the experimentation pass as exempt from ethical objections, even when there is no certainty of the scientific result.

"Nor can objections of an ethical character proper to this type of procedure be excluded."

Roberto Colombo, director of the laboratory of molecular biology and human genetics of the Catholic University of Milan, said that the "study does not state that the embryonic biopsy is a highly risky technique, as shown by all the reservations with which the preimplantational diagnosis is received," reported the Italian daily Avvenire.

"So the principle of the correct assessment of risks-benefits would be violated," he added.

The Italian newspaper observed, moreover, that no mention is made about the ultimate fate of the "spare embryos" used in the experiment.

"The fact that their fate is not that of being implanted in the uterus does not authorize anyone to consider them 'class B' citizens," Colombo said, "and, therefore, 'material' for experimentation."