The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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October 26, 2001 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

'Hematopoietic' and 'mesenchymal'

No matter the names, stem cell research points out need to respect life

By Bishop Robert Banks

This past week I spent three full days as a listener at a conference in Milwaukee that left my poor brain exhausted. The subject was stem cell research and it seems that to be a presenter at the conference you had to have at least one Ph.D., and ideally two or three. Among the speakers were theologians, philosophers, physicians, lawyers and biologists. The speakers also made up most of the carefully selected audience, so no quarter was given when they made their very learned and abstruse presentations.

I couldn't blame anyone, since the conference was the brainchild of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference -- in other words, the Wisconsin Catholic bishops, yours truly included. We asked Marquette University to join us and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in sponsoring the conference. Marquette agreed and asked one of their philosophy professors, Dr. Nancy Snow, to take on the challenge of arranging the program and the accommodations. She did a superb job.

Terms can be daunting

As the program unfolded, my one regret was that Bp. Morneau was also one of the listeners. The speakers, especially the scientists, were using some words that I would have loved to spring on Bp. Morneau the next time he asks me what I have been reading. "Hematopoietic" and "mesenchymal" were two that come to mind. But Bp. Morneau was not only present, as a former professor of philosophy at Silver Lake College, he had no trouble keeping his head above water as the flood of philosophical and scientific terms filled the hall.

But it was all very serious business. The issues of stem cell research and the use of stem cells demand the kind of detailed, expert reflection and dialogue that characterized our conference. And Sept. 11 has made us all more aware that much of the world does not see our scientific and related economic progress as a blessing -- at least for them.

Profit whom?

Are the discoveries of modern medicine to be patented, owned and used for profit? Should modern medical and pharmaceutical science spend so much of its time in bringing into existence high-tech, high-cost procedures and drugs for the rich countries of the world? What about finding and making available low cost drugs that can save millions of lives in the developing nations?

All those questions were brought up and given serious consideration, especially by the philosophers and theologians. However, most of the time was given over to presentations on stem cells, both their use and the related research. Let me say that I am awed by how God has created us and by the way researchers are opening up the secrets of God's incredible creation.

Life is so powerful. One stem cell, according to one of the researchers, can produce in one week another 15,000 stem cells. And science is so powerful. The researchers, working on cells so small that they can only be seen sometimes with an electron microscope, manage to discern and manipulate the hundreds and even thousands of elements within each cell.

Mixing human and animal

Science is also scary. The subject of chimerical research came up. It was all new to me, but it refers to the mixing of human and animal tissue. While I am aware that we use some pig tissue in fixing the human heart, I was surprised to hear that live human brain cells had been placed in the brain of a mouse. The possibility of even more adventurous experiments in the future was enough to convince me that our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, is on track with his call for the protection of human life in the encyclical, The Gift of Life.


Getting back to the main subject of the conference, a stem cell is a cell that can both replicate itself and also produce another cell of a specific kind of tissue, e.g. nerve, muscle, bone, etc. Embryonic stem cells taken from a live human embryo can be induced to produce cells of every kind of human tissue. Adult stem cells, those taken from the various kinds of tissue in a human body, generally are induced to produce cells belonging to the kind of tissue from which they come. (I am not a scientist, so my explanations of scientific terms may not be as accurate or clear as they should be.)

In the recent political struggle about stem cells, scientists and the media were promoting the use of embryonic stem cells because they can do so much. The Church and other religious and political groups were strongly opposed because you obtain embryonic stem cells only by destroying a live embryo.

Important points

After listening to several scientists speak about their areas of specialization in the use of stem cells and/or the research concerning stem cells, I have a few opinions about which I am now more sure or more informed than I was before the conference.

• First, stem cell use and research is tremendously important and should be continued.

• Second, we moderns have a serious responsibility to safeguard the dignity and sanctity of human life. In particular, we should not allow the destruction of live human embryos in order to obtain embryonic stem cells.

• Third, the promises and predictions made in the media about all the wonderful cures that are just around the corner through the use of embryonic stem cells were wildly over-hyped.

• Fourth, adult stem cells are already being used successfully to cure serious diseases. One of the main presentations in the conference concerned the use of stem cells obtained from the umbilical cord or placenta for the cure of diseases of the blood. In private conversation, one of the physicians mentioned that adult stem cells from the cornea were being used to repair corneas.

A lighter note

Finally, on a lighter note, while I was pleased to know that there are stem cells that can replicate in just about all tissues of the body, I was unhappy to know that they also exist in fat tissue. On the other hand, Bp. Morneau was delighted by one scientist's remark that the stem cells in our brains may always be at work repairing them.

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