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Stem cells in context
Experts address Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and the Church

By Phina Borgeson
[Episcopal News Service]  While the debate over the many ethical implications of stem cell research rages, studies in molecular genetics, genomics and cell development continue to yield new information. One of the learnings which may be surprising to many is that the differentiation of a stem cell depends on the environment or microniche where it resides.
"What a cell's neighbors 'say' to it chemically, and what it says to its neighbors, impact what kind of cell it becomes," reported Dr. Christie A. Holland, retired Professor and Chair of Virology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Children's Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"If context matters in ethics as well as in the development of a cell," posed Karen LeBacqz, bioethicist in residence at Yale, "we need to realize that we are talking about a different context here. It is a great pity that the debate around stem cells got framed in terms of the abortion debate. They are very different contexts."
Holland and Lebacqz were addressing the Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and the Church, as part of the program, "Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Churches, Ethics, and Politicians" presented by members from the United Church of Christ. This year's Roundtable was hosted April 27-30 by the Executive Council Committee on Science, Technology and Faith at the Emrich Retreat and Conference Center in the Diocese of Michigan.
Ron Cole-Turner, H. Parker Sharp Professor of Theology and Ethics at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, led off the panel with a review of the history of the debate surrounding stem cells, and with the hope that the panel would serve as a resource for those at the meeting who may be called upon to speak to the issues in the political arena.
Olivia Masih White, who teaches biology at John Carroll University in Cleveland, reviewed the basic biology of stem cells, clarifying terms and adding "What I taught 20 years ago is completely different than what I teach my biology students now, and the best contemporary science is still changing." 
Sandra Michael, convener of the Episcopal Network on Science, Technology and Faith, commented that she was glad White made the distinction between the two types of stem cells, totipottent and pluripotent. "This is rarely clarified in popular presentations on stem cells and is critical for understanding how they work."
Michael's research as Distinguished Service Professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton is in the genetics, endrocrinology and immunology of reproduction. "Just as people who aren't specialists in these topics need clear and thorough scientific explanations, scientists and clinicians need to consider the issues in a religious context as they apply the knowledge gleaned from their research."
The interplay of science, ethics and theology in the panel enabled the 40 Roundtable participants -- Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists as well as the UCC team and Episcopal hosts -- to clarify the other scientific terms which are used confusingly in politics and the popular media, as well as to explore the implications of stem cell research and therapies.  
Lebacqz raised the question of just access to therapies developed from stem cell research, since the stem cell lines approved by the current administration for federal funding are not diverse enough to meet the needs of different ancestral groups. The ethics around the acquisition of eggs and somatic cells for research are exceedingly complex, and also generated discussion.
Stem cell therapies hold the promise of both increasing longevity and of improving the quality of longer lives, giving rise to another cluster of questions. Interestingly, the Working Group on Faith and Genetics in the Diocese of Massachusetts, also ecumenical in makeup and represented by several members of the Roundtable, has announced that the science of human aging and efforts to slow it will be the group's next topic for study.     
Lebacqz conlcluded the formal presentaion with a series of her own theological questions. "What," she pondered, "Does being 'made in the image of God' mean in our time? For me, our dignity is relational; it has to do with communication, with being in communion with others and God." She concluded by returning to the science. As we understand more about how cells communicate and provide a context for one another, we see the resonance between science and theology deepen.