By Dr. Tim Millea
One of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the past 100 years occurred in a Toronto laboratory. In the early 1960s, biophysicist James Till and cellular biologist Ernest McCullough, working at the Ontario Cancer Institute, reported their discovery of stem cells. Their studies demonstrated the remarkable capabilities of these cells. Stem cells are able to renew, repair and replace tissue in the body and can be transplanted.
Over the next few years, this work evolved from their original mice studies to medical use. One of the first treatments involving stem cells was bone marrow transplants to treat blood cancers, such as leukemia. Over the past several decades, work with stem cells has increased, with attention to many diseases, including multiple sclerosis, diabetes, blindness and spinal cord injury.
Throughout our lifetime, each of us has our own stem cells. As a baby grows in their mother’s womb, stem cells are at work in the baby’s body as well as the placenta and umbilical cord. These multi-tasking cells continue to live in our tissues and organs throughout our lives, and ultimately are known as adult stem cells. From conception to death, adult stem cells work to repair any damage from illness and injury. Beyond their ability to help healing, stem cells have the ability to become any specific type of cell in the body. If the liver is damaged, stem cells will differentiate into liver cells. If heart muscle is damaged, stem cells become cardiac cells to help the heart function.
Unfortunately, since Till and McCullough’s discovery, the ethical aspects of stem cell research and use have taken a dark turn. Rather than focusing on adult stem cells, the widespread use of embryonic stem cells developed. In the past, concerns about the possible limited number of adult stem cells in our tissues and their ability to create a variety of cells were raised. These concerns have since been discounted, but nonetheless, attention to embryonic sources grew. The source of embryonic stem cells is exactly what the name implies: human embryos conceived with in vitro fertilization (IVF). Embryos that are growing, developing and defenseless. To obtain embryonic stem cells, the embryo must be killed. And that is morally wrong.
Fortunately, a third alternative exists beyond the use of adult and embryonic stem cells. Recently a research center within our own Diocese of Davenport has made an exciting announcement about this ethical and impactful alternative. Cellular Engineering Technologies (CET), in cooperation with the John Paul II Medical Research Institute (JP2MRI), both in Coralville, announced in early March that they have received a patent for development of their induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology. iPSC start as adult stem cells and are genetically reprogrammed, resulting in cells that can differentiate into the types of cells needed. Essentially, they take on characteristics and properties of embryonic stem cells, without the destruction of an embryo. Of great importance with CET’s technology is the absence of viruses and oncogenes in their iPSC. Oncogenes are genes that can potentially lead to the development of cancer cells. Their absence improves the safety of these iPSC dramatically. This will lead to advances in vaccines, gene therapy, medications and cell therapy without concerns for viruses, oncogenes and, significantly, the loss of unborn human life.
Dr. Alan Moy, the CEO and co-founder of CET and founder of JP2MRI, and his colleagues have worked for nearly two decades to develop methods for research that are pro-life and morally acceptable. Their mission statement clearly addresses this: “The Institute does not engage in embryonic stem cell research of any kind.” Their work follows the principles of the Catholic Church as they apply to biotechnology. The Vatican has approved the use of adult stem cells and iPSC as morally acceptable. Conversely, it has deemed the use of embryonic stem cells as morally evil. Currently, the vast majority of drugs and vaccines have a connection to the use of abortion-derived cell lines or embryonic stem cells. CET’s technology avoids those unethical methods.
Catholic hospitals, physicians and other health care professionals would benefit from the availability of products that are fully morally acceptable, rather than having to use morally compromised products. Ultimately, patients committed to the pro-life cause would finally have options that align with their faith and their conscience.
Over the past century, the remarkable advances made in medical research and treatments have added years and quality to our lives. Sadly, much of that progress has been at the expense of countless unborn lives. It is clear that other methods are available that do not require that needless sacrifice and provide equal or greater safety, effectiveness and economy. The dedicated work of CET and JP2MRI is a testament to the success that follows a consistent commitment to the dignity and value of every life, beginning at the moment of conception.
For more information about CET and JP2MRI, visit their websites: https://www.jp2mri.org and https://www.celleng-tech.com.
(Dr. Tim Millea is president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Medical Guild and a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport.)