The topic of stem cell research forces individuals to consider the question ... when does life begin?

Preserving life—it is extremely important in the Christian faith. But what is the biblical definition of life, and how does this definition affect stem cell research?

God clearly commands in Exodus 20:13: “You shall not murder [the intentional, predatory killing of another]” (NIV; see also Matthew 19:18; Romans 13:9). A big controversy today is that of determining when life begins. In the field of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), this determination is especially crucial. Because technology is advancing faster than society’s ethics, we are left to solve such dilemmas in the midst of active research. Determining the ethics in these issues is especially difficult when the research promises to cure diseases that leave millions disabled or dying every year. However, the Bible clearly prohibits evil means to accomplish good ends (Romans 3:8). To develop a biblical worldview of ESCR, we first must sort fact from fiction.

In a recent Pew Research poll, 56% of Americans said it is more important to conduct stem cell research that may lead to new medical cures than to avoid destroying human embryos during the research.1

Definitions and the Beginning of Life

A “stem cell” is an unspecialized cell with the capacity to change into many different cell types, such as blood, muscle, and nerve cells. Two main categories of stem cells are found in embryos and adults. Embryonic stem cells (ESC) are derived from human embryos shortly after fertilization (union of egg and sperm) in a lab dish and are considered to be “totipotent,” meaning that they can form any other type of cell in the human body. Adult stem cells are derived from varying locations in adults and are considered to be “pluripotent” or “multipotent” because they can give rise to some but not all the cells in a human body.

Harvesting ESCs kills the embryo, but harvesting adult stem cells does not kill or harm the adult. Many involved with the research of embryonic stem cells do not believe a new person begins at conception or don’t care. Embryonic stem cells are viewed as property, not people. However, the Bible clearly indicates that life does begin at conception (Psalm 51:5, 139:13–15; Jeremiah 1:5). We are made in God’s image and are image bearers from conception to death (Genesis 1:27).2 Therefore, harvesting ESCs violates God’s commandment not to murder.

Therapeutic Uses of Stem Cells

Researchers promise many cures as a result of ESCR, and the media tout a world free of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and cancer. But, so far, these claims have gone unrealized. President Bush’s 2001 ban3 on government-supported research using new ESCs may have slowed progress in this area. Less reported in the media is that ESCs have been found to have great genetic instability (mutations and chromosomal changes) that is associated with tumor formation.4 If these ESCs are used in therapy, they could actually do more harm than good. In addition, anyone receiving these cells will need to take anti-rejection medicine their entire lives since the cells are not a genetic match.

Also underreported is the fact that doctors have currently treated more than 70 different diseases and defects using adult stem cells.5 Although adult stem cells are more difficult to find and grow in the lab, they are more genetically stable. One type of cell, the Multi-Potent Adult Progenitor Cell (MAPC), has been found that may be able to form many different cell types, such as an ESC.6 It seems that adult stem cells have great, untapped potential.

Ethical Alternatives to Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Adult stem cells provide only one of several ethical alternatives to ESCR.7 They can be harvested from the individual who needs therapy without worry of cell rejection.

A recent article in Nature8 indicates it may be possible to reprogram an adult cell to become more like an ESC. Currently this technology depends on the use of an ESC to reprogram the adult cell, but it is hoped that this requirement can be overcome.

Several ethical alternatives to embryonic stem cell research that hold great promise are available.

Another popular alternative is to use umbilical cord blood. Since umbilical cord blood is rich in stem cells, it is collected shortly after birth. These blood cells have been used to successfully treat many diseases in adults and children.9 Several companies store such blood for a fee.10 The stem cells can then be used if needed later in life by that individual or possibly by their family.

Stem cells found in baby teeth11 are capable of becoming several different types of cells, including neural cells. Such cells are extracted from the pulp of a tooth that a child has lost as a result of the transition to permanent teeth. Dr. Songtao Shi, discoverer of these cells, says this about their future, “We can ask parents to put [baby] teeth that comes out in milk, put it in the refrigerator and give a call the next day, and we can get stem cells out. You can freeze them in nitrogen and save them for years and years.”12 These cells hold great promise for use in future therapies.

The Process Cannot Be Justified

Although ESCR is highly publicized as a possible means to put an end to many debilitating diseases, the murder of a human being is not justified. Many less popularized means, such as the ones previously mentioned, have already begun treating and bringing an end to these same diseases, and without the need to destroy human life.

Although everyone wants to see such devastating diseases come to an end, we all must realize our work will only lead to a temporary alleviation. Jesus Christ, the true conqueror of disease and death, will create a new heaven and a new earth where the effects of sin have been removed. That is the cure we eagerly await.

Dr. Georgia Purdom earned her doctorate in molecular genetics from Ohio State University. She spent six years as a professor of biology at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University. Dr. Purdom is also a member of the American Society for Microbiology and American Society for Cell Biology.

Human developement

Courtesy David A. Prentice

From the moment of conception, a baby begins to develop. Embryonic stem cell research uses cells from unborn babies, ending the baby’s life. The use of adult stem cells does not end life. (Click to enlarge)

Stem Cells in Baby Teeth?

An encouraging new field of study involves stem cells found in the dental pulp of baby teeth. One U.S. company involved in this research is Babytooth Technologies of Massachusetts founded by three Christians: Jason Bourgeois, John Beaulieu, and Robin Crossman, DVM. Because they believe the Bible’s teaching that life begins at conception, they focus on adult stem cell research. The founders also say that they desire both to make embryonic stem cell research less palatable and to bring glory to God.

Go to www.BabytoothUSA.com for more information on Babytooth Technologies.

To read more about Babytooth Technologies and its founder, see Questions for Robin Crossman, DVM, founder of Babytooth Technologies.

Addendum

Please also view the full-length Video On Demand presentation of Cloning, Stem Cells and the Value of Life by Mike Riddle, below.

Please download the flash player to view this video.

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Footnotes

  1. pewforum.org/publications/surveys/social-issues-06.pdf Back
  2. For a fuller discussion of euthanasia go to www.equip.org/free/DE197-1.htm Back
  3. www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/08/20010809-2.html. Back
  4. Maitra, Anirban, et al., Genomic alterations in cultured human embryonic stem cells, Nature Genetics 37:1099–1103, 2005. Back
  5. www.stemcellresearch.org/facts/treatments.htm Back
  6. www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn1826 Back
  7. In August 2006, scientists claimed to have harvested ESCs without killing the embryo, but this was later shown not to be the case. Back
  8. Silva, J., et al., Nanog promotes transfer of pluripotency after cell fusion, Nature 441:997–1001, 2006. Back
  9. Laughlin, Mary, et al., Outcomes after transplantation of cord blood or bone marrow from unrelated donors in adults with leukemia, New England Journal of Medicine 351(22):2265–2275, 2004. Back
  10. www.marrow.org/NMDP/cord_blood_bank_list.html Back
  11. Miura, Masako, et al., SHED: Stem cells from human exfoliated deciduous teeth, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(10):5807–5812, 2003. Back
  12. www.christianliferesources.com/?news/view.php&newsid=3788 Back