Macular Degeneration and Human Embryonic Stem Cells

William E. May
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

The Reuters News Agency reported on January 3 that the Federal Drug Administration had granted the Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) firm the right to try out using embryonic stem cells for treating macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness. ACTfs chief scientific officer, Dr. Robert Lanza, said that ACT would immediately recruit patients with age related macular degeneration and would use stem cells procured by destroying embryonic human beings in an effort to help these patients retain or recover their vision.

This essay will first explain what macular degeneration is and note its different forms. It will then focus on the morality of using human embryonic stem cells in efforts to cure persons suffering from maladies, and then report and reflect on relevant scientific evaluations of the therapeutic value efficacy of embryonic stem cell research.

Macular degeneration, the Macular Degeneration Partnership, a program sponsored by the Discovery Foundation to help persons suffering from macular degeneration, defines macular degeneration as "a disease that attacks the macula of the eye, where our sharpest central vision occurs. Although it rarely results in complete blindness, it robs the individual of all but the outermost, peripheral vision, leaving only dim images or black holes at the center of vision." There are various forms of macular degeneration, but "the fastest growing form is age-related macular degeneration (AMD)…, the number one cause of severe vision loss and legal blindness in adults over 60 in the US." There are two types of AMD - "wet" and "dry." There is no cure for AMD, but new treatments are available for the "wet" form of the disease that can ameliorate its manifestations. Although such treatments are not available for the "dry" form, "training and special devices can promote independence and a return to favorite activities" (see

This subject is of great personal interest because my wife and I live in a community of almost 3000 persons whose average age is 82. Several of our friends suffer from "wet" AMD and are very impaired visually. Although training, props, etc. have helped them to retain some independence and return to favored activities, they have not been able to resume reading. However, they patiently and cheerfully accept their condition, grateful for the life they can still lead.

The morality of using human embryonic stem cells

ACT will use stem cells it has produced by killing embryonic human beings for experimenting on persons suffering from "dry" AMD. What it proposes to do is to inject into them retinal pigment epithelial, or RPE cells, made from those embryonic stem cells.

The grave moral problem with using these cells, as readers of our articles well know, is that in order to obtain them one must kill innocent human beings in the embryonic stage of their existence. It is always wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human person for any reason. Scientists who engage in this killing and those who support their doing so hope that using them in scientific research will both advance our knowledge and lead to therapies that will be of great value to thousands of human beings suffering from terrible maladies such as AMD, Parkinsonfs disease, Lou Gehrigfs disease etc. But this hope leads them to use unborn babies as material for the use of others; and this is a terrible injustice.

It is relevant to emphasize here two incontestable truths. The first is that absolutely no cures have been achieved by using embryonic stem cells despite the many efforts to do so which have been carried out in this country and others for over a decade. (For this see two important websites: and, the website of DoNoHarm, the Coalition of Americans for Research ethics.) The second truth is that thousands of persons suffering from a myriad of terrible maladies have been cured or helped tremendously by the use of adult stem cells, including those found in umbilical cords and their own bodies. The websites noted already provide ample documentation and examples of such cures.

Adult stem cells are not human embryonic stem cells, but like embryonic stem cells, are undifferentiated cells, i.e., not cells pertaining to specific bodily parts or organs (e.g., fingers, kidneys, lungs) that can renew themselves and differentiate to become specialized cell types of tissues or organs. Using these cells does not require the intentional killing of the innocent and, as noted, has been and is being employed to effect wonderful cures of an expanding number of maladies. (For a more comprehensive understanding of stem cells, see "Stem Cells for Dummies" by CLF Fellow E. Christian Brugger at

Scientific evidence and ACTfs federally approved program

In the previous section reference was made to scientific studies reported on two websites showing how fruitless embryonic stem cell research has been. Ironically, on January 6, 2011, only 3 days after the FDA granted ACT approval to use human embryonic stem cells in its research, an article by Erin Brown in the Los Angeles Times reported on a scientific study published that week in the journal Cell Stem Cell ( that illustrates why embryonic stem cell research has failed. It has failed because scientists have not discovered how to make these cells safe.

According to the LA Times article, scientists at the University of California in San Diego and the Scripps Research Institute, using a new high resolution molecular technique called "single nucleotide polymorphism" (SNP), found that both embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) - adult stem cells reprogrammed to an embryonic state - had more genetic abnormalities that other cell types. These "genetic abnormalities" are very serious and are often associated with cancers. The dangerous genetic changes occur in the embryonic and iPSC stem cells very rapidly and would not have been detected by traditional microscopic techniques but were so detected by SNP.

Here is very important scientific evidence that supports the findings of "" and "DoNoHarm" regarding the problematic and yet unsuccessful results of embryonic stem cell research. The scientific findings continue to illustrate how uncertain the future of this type of research is, and reinforces the moral (and indeed utilitarian) judgment that energies and monies should be earmarked for morally uncontroversial forms of stem cell research.


One can hope that those who do not accept the good moral reasoning for opposing embryonic stem cell research will accept good scientific evidence showing the problems inherent in such research and will do more to further the advances made every day in adult stem cell research and therapy.

This evidence advises caution in the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). There is urgent need of further study regarding their effects if introduced into living organisms; this study should be carefully carried out before using them in efforts to help human persons suffering from diseases or injuries.