Daryl Ilbury

If every sperm were sacred, this would be impossible…

In Eish!, Science on July 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm

While Bob was sleeping, Nigel used his penknife to show his girlfriend what Bob’s trachea looked like

Recent news about a young man’s new windpipe made me think about sperm and how it’s supposed to be sacred. You may frown and think it a somewhat spurious link, but give me a minute or two to present my case; but be warned: I will use a term that some may find offensive. See if you can spot it.

The story is about 13 year-old Ciaran Finn-Lynch, who was born with a defective trachea (windpipe). It was so deformed that it prevented air getting to his lungs, causing them to collapse. Metal tubes were used to keep his airway open, but these caused other problems, resulting in Ciaran being rushed to hospital on two occasions with internal bleeding.

Eventually doctors decided to do a transplant. The obvious challenge: preventing his immune system interpreting a transplanted trachea as a foreign body, and rejecting it. The way they got around it was ingenious, and particularly brave. Using the trachea of a (dead) donor – a 30 year-old Italian woman – they stripped it of any remnants of her cells from the trachea scaffold. Then, using Ciaran’s own stems cells to coat the scaffold, the doctors were able to grow a trachea that wouldn’t be rejected by his own immune system.

But here’s the best part: it was grown inside him.

The story has appeared in a recent edition of the Lancet. Two years after completion of the operation, Ciaran is now a perfectly heathy teenage boy (I have avoided using the word ‘normal’ because no teenage boy displays behaviour that could be called ‘normal’!) You can read more about it on WebMD.

So…did you spot the offensive term? Here’s a clue: Third paragraph, final sentence.

Still no? I’m not surprised. I’d hazard a guess as a reader of this blog you wouldn’t be offended by it. The term is: ‘stem cells’. It normally gets radical pro-lifers and right-wing Christian fundamentalists all worked up, for reasons that are embedded in ignorance. They believe that the use of stem cells, especially embryonic stem cells, is immoral, because such cells have the capacity for human life.

This is true, but then the same could be said for sperm cells – it’s why the Catholic church remains adamant in its objection to birth control. Non-Catholic Christians are able to find this a little odd, and argue that such narrow-minded thinking is one of the reasons behind the high number of abortions. They may even joke that, technically then, male masturbation is mass murder. At times like this I find myself smiling and thinking about the brilliance of the ‘every sperm is sacred’ scene from Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’.

But here’s the twist, and how we return to the story of the young man with the new windpipe: Most fertilised eggs – the source of embryonic stem cells – are rejected naturally, before they develop any further. The reason being is that every fertilised egg contains foreign genetic material, identified as such by the the female’s immune system; after all, a fertilised egg contains half its genetic material from the male. It’s as if the female had received an organ transplant.

However, there seems to be this belief among many people who reject embryonic stem cell research that embryonic stem cells are somehow drawn from foetuses inside the mother, most probably using very large needles wielded by masked men who attended the Josef Mengele School of Medicine. The reality is that most embryonic stem cells are drawn from blastocysts fertilised in vitro, in laboratories, from material that has been donated.

There is also the belief that embryonic stem cells are somehow ‘human‘, even if mixed together in a petri dish. This is not the case. Even human foetuses that have survived the embryo stage and are weeks or even months into growth inside another human, resemble foetuses of other mammals (many of which are routinely slaughtered by humans for food) for much of their development. Their brain development is rudimentary – even reptillian. They only really become ‘human’ in the final three months, when their brain development is such that they will have the capacity for human thought.

So, technically, and genetically, yes, embryonic stem cells have the capacity to develop into human embryos, but the odds are stacked dramatically against them, and they are certainly cannot be considered ‘human’.  Similarly, stem cells have the capacity for new human life; but, as the case of Ciaran Finn-Lynch has shown, they most certainly have the capacity to save lives.

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