Embryonic Stem Cell Controversy

BETTY ROLLIN, correspondent: Andy Trevino took to his new baby sister, Sophia, from the start, and in more ways than one, she took to him. One of the reasons Sophia was conceived was to save her brother’s life. Shortly after Andy’s birth, he got sick—very sick. His immune system just didn’t seem to be working.

ANDRES TREVINO: He started having very rare infections—infections of his central nervous system, infections of his stomach, infections of his lungs.

ROLLIN: The Trevinos were desperate for a diagnosis, which they weren’t able to get in Mexico City where they lived. They wound up at the Children’s Hospital in Boston and learned that Andy had a rare genetic mutation called NEMO that was causing his immune system to fail.

TREVINO: We decided to keep him safe with antibiotics and a lot of medicines, about 13 types of medications, and then to try to find a compatible donor for a bone marrow stem cell transplant.

ROLLIN: But they couldn’t find one.

TREVINO: One day one of the physicians came to our hospital room and told us there is always the option of having another baby, and after birth we could use the umbilical cord stem cells for Andy.

ROLLIN: And that’s what you did.

TREVINO: That’s what we did.

PAULINA TREVINO: It wasn’t difficult for me to take this decision because we always wanted another child, and to know that this other child was going to be able to save my son’s life, it was exciting.

ROLLIN: IVF, in vitro fertilization, was the only way to create an embryo that would be free of the genetic mutation that Paulina carried. It took 36 embryos to get a big enough selection to achieve success.

DR. GEORGE DALEY (Children’s Hospital Boston): There was no way to cure Andy without the decision of the family to have another child whose cells matched Andy’s, and indeed by performing in vitro fertilization and selecting for the tissue type, they were able to have a child whose bone marrow could cure Andy.

ROLLIN: And now Andy is well, and he has two sisters, Sophia and most recently nine-month-old Tania. The family lives outside of Boston, where Andres has a job with Children’s Hospital. The Trevinos are Catholic. The Catholic Church believes that life begins at conception, that creating embryos through in vitro fertilization, which is what the Trevinos did, is wrong.

Richard Doerflinger with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops believes that each embryo deserves respect.

RICHARD DOERFLINGER (US Conference of Catholic Bishops): We are talking here about life, about a human life at a very, very early and undeveloped stage, but human life nonetheless.

ROLLIN: Dr. Daley disputes that an embryo in this stage is a human life.

DR. DALEY: We are talking about the first three or four days after conception when the human embryo is a tiny ball of cells, between 50 and 200 cells. It’s a speck smaller than a period at the end of a sentence. You need a microscope to see it.

ROLLIN: The church also believes the destruction of embryos to obtain embryonic stem cells for research is immoral.

DOERFLINGER: When we are talking about stem cell research, we are talking about a way to destroy that life, cut it off at a certain stage for the benefit for others. We think that’s wrong to do that.

ROLLIN: But Louis Guenin, professor of ethics at Harvard Medical School, says that the research is not only not wrong, it would be wrong not to do it.

LOUIS GUENIN (Harvard Medical School): It’s a biological fact that those embryos outside of a womb can’t mature beyond about two weeks. Knowing that, we have to take account for moral purposes of the duty of beneficence, the duty to come to the aid of those who suffer if we can do so without unreasonable burden.

ROLLIN: In a document called “Dignitas Personae,” issued by the Vatican in 2008, the church reiterated its existing ban on IVF and on the destruction of embryos for stem cell research, which is not to say that there are not individual Catholics like the Trevinos who choose not to follow the church’s teachings.

DR. DALEY: Stem cells are part of what we call regenerative medicine, because stem cells are involved in the natural repair and regeneration of our tissues. They teach us an enormous amount about the disease process, but they give us this possibility for regenerating tissues, and that’s why they are of such tremendous scientific importance, but also potential medical value in the future.

ROLLIN: Because of that, the Trevinos decided to donate their remaining embryos to Dr. Daley’s lab.

TREVINO: This decision that we took saved the life of my son. It gave us a beautiful daughter, actually two beautiful daughters, and it allowed us to hopefully help other people with the cells that have been created at the lab.

DR. DALEY: We succeeded in generating two embryonic stem cell lines, one of which carries the precise gene defect that affects Andy. That line is enormously valuable to us.

ROLLIN: But Catholics and others who think the research is immoral favor using adult stem cells. Dr. Daley studies adult stem cells, but believes the use of embryonic stem cells is crucial.

DR. DALEY: If we want to understand the earliest stages of human development, how we lay down all the different tissues, then we are best to study these early embryonic or pluripotent stem cells.

ROLLIN: Now that the Obama administration has allowed federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, there are many more stem cell lines available. But scientists are still barred from using embryos to create new stem cell lines with federal funding.

DR. DALEY: And there’s a pipeline of hundreds of lines waiting for approval. So the policy is in place, but it’s going to take months, maybe a year or more, to implement it. So there’s still a certain delay and frustration.

ROLLIN: As long as some people believe that an early-stage embryo is a human being, the moral battle over embryonic stem cell research will continue. Meanwhile, Andy Trevino has benefited from stem cell therapy, and others with his disease will benefit from the stem cell lines donated by his parents.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Betty Rollin in Sudbury, Massachusetts.