Research FAQ

Stem Cell Research FAQs

Is human embryonic stem cell research being performed at the University of Notre Dame?

Notre Dame has never conducted or supported human embryonic stem cell research. 

Is non-human embryonic stem cell research being performed at the University of Notre Dame?

Yes. Mouse embryonic stem cell research is taking place at Notre Dame. This has been a long-standing research area and using mouse embryonic stem cells has revealed many interesting details about animal development and disease. 

Will this non-human research extend into human embryonic stem cell research at Notre Dame?

No. There exists a clear ethical distinction between using embryonic stem cells isolated from animals and embryonic stem cells isolated from humans. There is a significant interest in the scientific community to continue all types of stem cell research, including embryonic stem cells, as it is thought they will provide much information about human development and disease.

Notre Dame believes that recent research indicates that non-embryonic alternative sources of stem cells may be as flexible as human embryonic stem cells without the ethical difficulties inherent in the use of human embryonic stem cells.

Are there other forms of stem cell research being performed at the University of Notre Dame?

Yes. Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell and adult (non-embryonic) stem cell research are being actively pursued at Notre Dame. The iPS cells are produced from ordinary mature cells (such as skin cells) and turned into stem cells by introducing specific genes into the cells.

Adult stem cells are found in different tissues and organs throughout the bodies of animals, including the nervous system. The two most well known sources of adult/non-embryonic stem cells are the blood stem cells found in the bone marrow and umbilical cord blood. 

Does the collection of adult stem cells result in the loss of human life or damage to tissues?

There is no harm done to the donor in adult stem cell harvesting. 

What are the potential benefits of the research that will come from the study of adult stem cells?

Stem cells are the body’s master cells, producing all of its tissues and organs. Using their natural developmental program, they could regenerate healthy cells in diseased or damaged tissues. Adult stem cells could be used to repair damaged heart or spinal cord tissue, grow new liver or blood cells, reverse the effects of stroke, and be used to cure a variety of diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s.

While all stem cells could be used for these purposes, adult stem cells could regenerate cells in the same tissues where they reside. This would remove the need to isolate the cells prior to therapy and would utilize the native environment of the adult stem cells to enhance the regeneration. Adult stem cells can also provide non-animal models of some diseases and allow pharmaceutical drug screening with greater specificity— even to the level of screening drugs on cells of individual patients first in the lab to determine the best treatments.

How are adult stem cells different from embryonic stem cells?

Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, which means they can become any type of cell in an organism and they have the potential to divide an unlimited number of times. Additionally, embryonic stem cells require the destruction of a developing embryo for their isolation.

Adult stem cells were long regarded as multipotent, meaning that a blood stem cell can make more blood cells, or a neuronal stem cell can make more neurons. However, recent studies have shown that adult stem cells can be coaxed into forming different stem cells types.

Is Notre Dame committed to the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death?

Notre Dame fully affirms the Catholic Church’s respect for the equal dignity of every human life from conception to natural death. Accordingly, Notre Dame does not engage in or support any research that promotes or implies approval for the intentional use and destruction of human beings at the embryonic or fetal stage of development.

The research we do involves adult stem cells and non-human embryonic stem cells and is therefore in full accord with Catholic Church teaching as expressed most recently in Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person), an instruction from the Church’s highest doctrinal authority that applies timeless moral principles to new issues and situations arising from biotechnology.

Will there be any moral issues around the use of adult stem cells?

Adult stem cell research is in its early stages. Adult stem and iPS cell research, which does not involve destruction of human life, should be supported and encouraged.

As adult stem cell research moves forward, Notre Dame will continue to affirm the Catholic Church’s support for “…science [as] an invaluable service to the integral good of the life and dignity of every human being.” Notre Dame accepts the Church’s charge to “dedicate [itself] to the progress of biomedicine and [to] bear witness to [its] faith in the field.”

Concretely, Notre Dame resolves to work to bring the fruits of ethical biomedical research to “…areas of the world that are poor and afflicted with disease so that those that are most in need will receive humanitarian assistance.”