Have you heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge? It’s gone viral on the Internet this summer. Once you’ve been nominated, you have a choice. You can douse yourself with a bucket of ice-cold water within 24 hours, film it and pass the challenge on to others via Facebook or other social media – or you can donate $100 to the ALS Association. Athletes, celebrities, and people from all walks of life have posted videos online of themselves getting drenched. The publicity has not only increased awareness about ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease); it’s also raised a tremendous amount of money for ongoing research at the same time. The challenge has been a lot of fun, and the results have been fantastic. As of August 21, total donations to the ALSA had reached $41.8 million.1
The purpose of the ALS Association is to find effective treatments and a cure for ALS. They also offer assistance and support to those who suffer from the disease. They play a very important role, because the impact of ALS is devastating.
ALS is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Over time, the brain loses its ability to control muscle movements.2 In the latter stages of the illness, voluntary muscle movements are progressively affected, and patients may become paralyzed. In 2004, the New York Times wrote that “A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is often described as a kind of living death in which the body goes flaccid while the mind remains intact and acutely aware. The prospect of being trapped in an inert body and being totally dependent on others drives many sufferers to suicide.”3 Fortunately, “Many patients … have deep religious beliefs that help sustain them, and they are able, ‘to find hope in the future, find meaning and tolerate the daily ongoing losses that they are experiencing.’”4
The first drug treatment for ALS (Riluzole) was recently approved in the U.S., and there is hope that it may slow the progression of the disease. However, there is no cure. While there have been documented cases where the disease progressed slowly (or even stopped progressing altogether), the average survival rate is only three years.5 In Canada alone, 2 or 3 people die of ALS every day.6
ALS is a tragic disease, and we are blessed to have so many people who have dedicated their lives to finding a cure. But some ethical problems have surfaced. Some current research poses a moral dilemma for Catholics because of its use of embryonic stem cells. I’d heard about stem cells in the past, and I also knew that there was a lot of controversy surrounding their use. I wanted to know more.
Definition of stem cells
What is a stem cell anyway? The ALS Association explains that… “Stem cells are cells that have the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and give rise to multiple specialized cell types. They can develop into blood, bone, brain, muscle, skin and other organs.”7 Because of their amazing properties, stem cells have the potential to be used for treatment in ALS as well as many other conditions and diseases, such as blindness, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, and diabetes.8
Types of stem cells
There are several types of stem cells, including embryonic, adult, and induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs). “Human embryonic stem cells are derived from fertilized embryos less than a week old.”9 They can be isolated and propagated in culture. Because they are ‘undifferentiated’, “they have the ability to form any adult cell.”10
Adult stem cells are found in our bone marrow, brain, and in the spinal cord. It was once believed that these cells were more limited than embryonic stem cells – that they could only give rise to the same type of tissue from which they originated. However, “new research suggests that adult stem cells may have the potential to generate other types of cells, as well. For example, liver cells may be coaxed to produce insulin, which is normally made by the pancreas. This capability is known as plasticity or transdifferentiation.”11
“Induced pluripotent stem cells are adult, differentiated cells that have been experimentally reprogrammed into a stem cell-like state.”12 They share many of the characteristics of human embryonic stem cells and can be grown into cell lines. Because making IPSCs doesn’t involve the use of embryos, there are no ethical or political issues involved in their use. The discovery of IPSCs is a very recent development and it has great potential. However, a lot more research will need to be done before scientists will be able to use them therapies.
The ALS Association uses both embryonic and adult stem cells in their research. They wrote, “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 ways to treat diseases.”13
Stem cell research and the Catholic Church
What is it about stem cell research that poses a difficulty for Catholics? The Church doesn’t object to stem cell research under certain circumstances. For example, stem cells are obtained from adults with their consent in the treatment of leukemia.14 There are also cases where procedures carried out on the human embryo can be permitted. The criteria are set out in the Catechism, where we read, “One must hold as licit procedures carried out on the human embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it, but are directed toward its healing, the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival.”15
However, when research is carried out on human embryos, a growing child must be killed in order to retrieve the cells. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops writes, “To destroy an embryo is to take a human life, an act which is contrary to God’s law and Church teaching. Some argue that the good obtained by healing serious diseases justifies the destruction of some human embryos. But this reduces a human being to a mere object for use. It assumes there are no moral absolutes that must be held in all circumstances. It violates the moral principle that the end does not justify the means. Embryonic stem-cell research is an immoral means to a good end. It is morally unacceptable.”16
What can we do?
So how can Catholics be part of ongoing efforts to find a cure for ALS without supporting embryonic stem cell research? One possibility is to support morally acceptable alternatives, such as the John Paul II Medical Research Institute. The JP2MRI is a secular, non-profit organization that doesn’t support embryonic stem cell research. Instead, it seeks “cures and therapies exclusively using a variety of adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells.”17 Another possibility is to donate to ALSA, but stipulate that your gift not be used to further embryonic stem cell research. In an email to the American Life League, Carrie Munk of the ALSA wrote, “The ALS Association primarily funds adult stem cell research. Currently, the Association is funding one study using embryonic stem cells (ESC), and the stem cell line was established many years ago under ethical guidelines set by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS); this research is funded by one specific donor, who is committed to this area of research. In fact, donors may stipulate that their funds not be invested in this study or any stem cell project. Under very strict guidelines, The Association may fund embryonic stem cell research in the future.”18
Whatever you decide, please remember to pray for those who suffer from ALS and support them and their families in whatever way you can. And pray, too, for all those involved in this important research – that a moral and ethical cure will be found soon to eradicate this terrible disease.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 “Generosity Continues with Ice Bucket Donations Reaching $41.8 Million,” ALS Association; available from http://www.alsa.org/news/media/press-releases/ice-bucket-challenge-082114.html Internet; accessed 21 August 2014.
2 Cf. “What is ALS?”, ALS Association; available from http://www.alsa.org/about-als/what-is-als.html; Internet; accessed 20 August 2014.
3 John Schwartz and James Estrin, “Living for Today, Locked in a Paralyzed Body,” New York Times [online newspaper], November 7, 2004; available from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/07/health/07ALS.html?_r=0; Internet; accessed 20 August 2014.
5 Carmel Armon, MD, “Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – Practice Essentials,” Medscape; available from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1170097-overview; Internet; accessed 20 August 2014.
6 ALS SLA Canada website; available from http://www.als.ca/en/home; Internet; accessed 20 August 2014.
7 “Stem Cells,” ALS Association; available from http://www.alsa.org/research/about-als-research/stem-cells.html; Internet; accessed 20 August 2014.
8 Chart: “Health Images,” Science Kids; available from http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/pictures/health/stemcelltreatment.html; Internet; accessed 20 August 2014.
9 “Stem Cells,” ALS Association.
11 Stephanie Watson and Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D., “How Stem Cells Work,” howstuffworks; available from http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/cellular-microscopic/stem-cell.htm; Internet; accessed 21 August 2014.
13 ALS Association (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association), American Life League; available from http://www.all.org/charities – ALS_Association_(Amyotrophic_Lateral_Sclerosis_Association); Internet; accessed 20 August 2014. Photo of stem cells: University of Wisconsin-Madison, used in Watson and Freudenrich,”How Stem Cells Work.”
14 Cf. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, July, 2006; 9th printing October, 2012), 393.
15 CCC, 2275. Italics added.
16 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, 392-393.
17 “Our Mission,” John Paul II Medical Research Institute; available from http://www.jp2mri.org/mission.htm; Internet; accessed 20 August 2014.
18 ALS Association (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association), American Life League. Italics added.