Friday, January 24, 2014

Let the Building Begin

Homeowners exult when the preliminary preparations for a home building project are complete. Months of planning and consultation assumes a new trajectory when the actual initial building process begins. Careful planning is now complete; actual construction soon follows. This building sequence reminds us of far more majestic and miraculous events associated with human development from conception to birth. These events call forth exultation of a different sort.

The 8-9 day period following conception precedes implantation of the embryo into the mother’s uterine wall. These are important days of preparation for the actual body building project to follow. Events prior to implantation are wonderfully eventful and significant. The mother is host to the embryo during the 8-9 days prior to implantation. The blastocyst is formed during this time, a hollow, spherical structure. It forms two outer layers from which the placenta is generated. Later the placenta will supply the developing embryo with nutrients and oxygen from the mother. The inner layers of the blastocyst form the well-known embryonic stem cells. These embryonic stem cells will later become the “body builders” for the construction of a complex and complete human.  

Before implantation the blastocyst produces a cluster of embryonic stem cells called the inner cell mass (ICM). After the blastocyst is implanted into the uterine wall, the toolkit for body building is in place. Let the building begin! Among many other events taking place, the stem cells are able to self-renew and to differentiate. All embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. This means these cells are able to differentiate into all of more than 220 cell types needed to construct the many tissues which form organs and eventually, the integrated systems of the living body.

One cultural issue triggered by prenatal medical knowledge has been the discovery that pluripotent embryonic stem cells have the potential to be cultured outside the human body for possible transplantation. The potential for healing of disease or replacement of damaged organs using stem cells has captured the imagination of the professional medical world. Balancing this potential is a familiar outcry from the pro-life camp revolving about the necessity of destroying a human life to harvest the embryonic stem cells. Deliberate termination of viable life even at a very early stage in the womb is morally and ethically unacceptable.

Several years ago a possible solution to this ethical dilemma was discovered. In 2006 a Japanese scientist, Shinya Yamanaka, discovered how to reprogram different types of stem cells found throughout the human body, adult stem cells, back into their pluripotent state. Stem cells throughout the body are multipotent (able to become multiple, but not all types, of human cells), oligopotent (able to become a few types of human cells), and unipotent (able to become one other type of human cell). In 2012 Yamanka and another scientist from the UK, John Gurdon, won a Nobel Prize for their groundbreaking work.

Modern scientists experience empowerment with their new discoveries. Reprogramming an adult stem cell is a method of hastening and enhancing essentially natural phenomena. Theistic scientists give glory back to God for their ability to discover and apply design features originally authored by God. Naturalistic science researchers deservedly revel in their discoveries but their breakthroughs do not necessarily channel them to wonder for the Creator. The mindset of scientists is a subjective trait. It is not necessarily related to fundamental discovery of truth.

When a newborn arrives in a family, the parents and relatives focus on the exterior of the “building.” Does he or she have all the appropriate body parts-- all the fingers and toes? Who does the child resemble most? How much does he weigh? What is her length? More remarkable is the knowledge of internal organ structure and the operation and function of the organ systems. Even more remarkable is a modicum of knowledge of how the body systems were assembled. We ask how embryonic stem cells produce more than 220 separate body cell types. How are these separate cell types assembled by the “building” team? May praise to the Creator be blended with our inquiry!