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Jan. 18-24, 2007
Gift of Life
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) CNS photo
Future CNY facility to store umbilical cord blood, alternative to embryonic stem cells

The movement in defense of life struck a major victory last November.
Nov. 3, then-Governor George Pataki announced that an umbilical cord blood bank center serving upstate New York would be built in Syracuse.

New York State committed $10 million to the facility, which is expected to employ roughly 20 people. The State Senate will provide $5 million for the center and the SUNY construction fund will provide the other $5 million. While Governor Elliot Spitzer and his new administration have promised $2 billion toward embryonic stem-cell research and other innovations, among them human cloning, the previous regime was working to provide an alternative that was not ethically compromised.

The potential for treatments and cures derived from embryonic stem cells is subject to debate. Regardless, the cells are culled from human embryos. The Catholic Church�s teaching on respect for life opposes human cloning and any research that involves destroying human embryos.

Stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood may provide compelling alternative to embryonic stem cells might provide. A stem cell is a cell that can regenerate as the same type of cell or have its composition altered to form other types of cells. Stem cells can also be used to supplant or repair damaged cells in humans. Stem cells are generally divided into two broad categories: embryonic and adult types. Embryonic stem cells are culled from the unborn or via cloning, while adult stem cells are derived from sources such as the umbilical cord, the placenta, bone marrow and many other elements in the adult body, including fat.

Recently, scientists at Wake Forest and Harvard universities announced that medically useful stem cells could also be drawn from amniotic fluid. Pro-life activists lauded the discovery. Jan. 10, the White House released a report on non-embryonic stem-cell research. The paper included information on a new development in stem cell research in which cells are derived from amniotic fluid. The innovation was published in the journal Nature Biotechnology. In the paper, Dr. Anthony Atala of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that the cells from amniotic fluid may be an improvement on the potential of embryonic stem cells. In addition to being easier to grow than embryonic stem cells, they also do not form tumors, a common problem with embryonic stem cells.

Jared Saya, a nine-year-old Syracuse resident, was successfully treated for leukemia using cord blood cells. Saya had waited for a matching donor for a bone marrow transplant when his doctor suggested the use of cord blood. While State Senator John A. DeFrancisco (R-I-C-WF, Syracuse) was working on a bill number S.59999-A, which finances awareness of umbilical cord stem cells and their medicinal potential, the New York State Health Department made the state senator aware of the need for a cord blood storage facility in Upstate New York. The New York Blood Center�s National Cord Blood Program in Manhattan is the largest cord blood storage facility in the world. However, it is contracted with just six collection sites, five in the New York metropolitan area and one in Cleveland, Ohio.

The cord blood center set for Central New York would provide a hub for residents of Upstate New York. Previously, families wishing to donate had to conduct a great deal of research to find a storage facility for umbilical cords. The process also involved considerable personal expense.

Cindy Falise recently took over as interim director of Catholic Charities and Community Services. Until then, Falise served as the director of the diocese�s Respect Life Office. She views the discoveries surrounding adult stem cells as a perfect counterpoint to embryonic stem cell research, which would necessitate the destruction of embryos. �I see a cord bank in CNY as a victory very life giving,� she said. �Now we have an opportunity for one person�s life to give life to someone else.�

Initially, DeFrancisco had hoped a center could be built at the SUNY Upstate Medical University. According to Daniel Hurley, director of governmental and community relations at Upstate Medical, DeFrancisco initially approached the school about locating the cord blood storage facility on its grounds. According to Hurley, however, there was not enough room for such a facility.

DeFrancisco believes an announcement regarding the location for the facility could come soon. According to Hurley, cord blood stem cell research represents another valuable locus of medical study. �It�s better to be doing a lot of things with science. Looking at new avenues�that�s how you get new treatments,� he said. He said the new facility will help expand the school�s mission. �We helped to advocate for it because it added another dimension of biomedical research for the medical school,� he said.

Hurley believes Upstate Medical will be involved in the facility at a later date once the blue prints are in place. DeFrancisco believes a location is close to being established. According to Kathleen Gallagher, director of the New York State Catholic Conference�s Pro-Life Activities Office, the new center may help eliminate hurdles for those who simply wish to help people. Moreover, she hopes the new center will enhance the profile of umbilical cord stem cells and their potential use in treatments. �It will improve awareness up here about the opportunity,� Gallagher said. Although DeFrancisco was aware of cord blood cells previously, Saya�s case re-enforced the state senator�s enthusiasm for their potential in medical use.

For DeFrancisco, support for cord blood stem cell use is a matter of expediency. While the debate on embryonic stem cell use persists, he reasons, why not utilize materials that are classified as medical waste. �There are ethical issues concerning embryonic stem cells. That debate is going to go on and on,� DeFrancisco said. �If we have an alternative source of blood cells that is just going to be treated as medical waste, we�d be foolhardy not to use it. If there are alternatives that are just as viable then we should use them.� The ethical challenges for Catholics posed by developments in biotechnology have become more evident in the weeks since Eliot Spitzer took office in New York State. During his State of the State address, Spitzer proposed a $2 billion bond act to voters for stem cell research and other technological initiatives in an effort to spark an �innovation economy.� Gallagher believes that the governor�s effort holds ominous ethical implications.

�We are very concerned about this bond act,� she said. �We are gravely concerned because of the emphasis that we anticipate on embryonic stem cell research and human cloning.� During a speech on stem cells at Columbia University, then State Senator David Paterson stressed that the future administration intended to ban human reproductive cloning. But he defended certain forms of cloning, namely somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). No sperm is involved and the egg is never fertilized in SCNT and no life is produced, according to Paterson.

�It [SCNT] is an important tool in stem cell research and we will preserve it against the Bush administration�s attempts to criminalize,� said Paterson, who is now Spitzer�s lieutenant governor. Gallagher countered that SCNT actually is cloning. �It is a process of placing a somatic cell nucleus into a female egg and �tricking� it into dividing, as if it had been fertilized by sperm,� Gallagher said. �The result is a new unique human embryo. He or she already has 46 chromosomes, a gender, hair color, eye color, etc. all determined. A new human life. This is the very same process that was used creating Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned.�

Once the embryo is created it has two potential destinations. It can be used in experimentation and destroyed in order to harvest its embryonic cells or it can be planted in a uterus and brought to term as a baby, Gallagher explained. �The Paterson plan advocates doing �a� and banning �b,� but it is the same process,� Gallagher said. �The only difference is what you do with the resulting cloned embryo. It is extremely deceptive and disingenuous for them to say they want to ban cloning when, in fact, they want to promote and finance cloning, provided the early human embryos are destroyed by research.�

The Catholic church�s leadership is not composed of technophobic theologians anxious to return to an era predating the modern world. The church does, however, seek to develop a science that does not infringe on the value of life. Recent developments in the scientific community show that stem cell research and its potential use for the treatment of disease need not threaten the lives of embryos.

�It�s showing that cells from babies that are allowed to be born [can be useful],� Gallagher said. �There�s no need to destroy an embryo. Cells available at birth are treating disease and disability.� The umbilical cord blood storage facility slated for Syracuse would provide a benefit derived from creation rather than destruction.

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