Icing the ALS ‘ice bucket’ challenge


Lou Gehrig (1903–1941): leading baseballer who died only two years after being diagnosed with ALS
Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

In the last month or so, ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) has been forefront in the news. This is a terrible disease that causes nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord to degenerate, causing increasing paralysis. Its most famous victim was the baseball player Lou Gehrig (1903–1941), one of the greatest first basemen of all time. This is why ALS is often called ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’ in North America. Gehrig lived only two years after the diagnosis, and the average survival time is about three years. Another famous victim is the celebrity mathematical physicist and atheopathic propagandist Stephen Hawking (1942–2018). He was unfortunately almost totally paralyzed—confined to a wheelchair and speaking via a voice synthesizer. But he greatly beat the odds by living past 70. CMI contributor Rev. Dr Francis Humphrey (1948–2019), former lecturer (retired) in Old Testament Studies in the Faculté de Théologie Évangélique de Montréal, Acadia University and Pastor of Peoples Church of Montreal from 1978 to 2012, where I had the pleasure of speaking, suffered from ALS for 15 years, and was an outspoken opponent of assisted suicide.1

This severely destructive illness is one result of the Fall of mankind. But surely Christians, who are meant to imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), should follow His example of alleviating the effects of the curse by curing diseases and saving lives. So Christians should certainly support efforts to find cures for ALS.

However, this has a qualification: these cures must be ethical. This means that some proposed avenues of research that involve destruction of human beings must be totally resisted.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

wikipedia.org ALS-ice-bucket-challange

In July and August, videos of people dumping ice water on their heads to raise awareness of ALS have gone viral on social media. This is certainly a less drastic means than the related ‘Polar bear plunge’, where people raise money for charity by submerging themselves in freezing-cold water.

It’s well-meaning but any charity should be worth giving to on its own merits, regardless of someone’s willingness to subject himself to a totally unrelated form of masochism. UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama seem to agree; they just donated to ALS research.2 However, the campaign has been wildly successful and has created awareness of this debilitating disease. It has attracted many world leaders, businessmen, and famous actors, and some well-known Christians who have participated, and has raised over $100 million.3

Pro-life concerns

However, particularly for Christians who donate, one must then ask exactly how this money will be used. A grave concern is that it will be used to fund the unethical practice of embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Stem cell research is certainly a very good idea, since stem cells can develop into many types of tissue. Thus they might well be able to grow into neurons to replace those damaged by ALS. However, embryonic stem cell research must necessarily destroy already-conceived human beings, so any moral person must reject this destruction of individuals made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–28, 9:5–6). The ALS Association has unfortunately supported ESCR. Another type of unethical stem cell comes from the spinal cord from an electively aborted baby. The North East ALS Consortium (NEALS) has openly supported this research.4

Flickr: Doug Wheller
Stephen Hawking: famous ALS sufferer who is now over 70.

However, there are other sources of stem cells that require no destruction of life: ‘adult’ or somatic stem cells. Also, even from a pragmatic perspective—which should always be secondary to morality—unlike embryonic stem cells, somatic stem cells have provided over 70 types of cures. Our Journal of Creation article, Stem cells and Genesis (2001), documents many sources of stem cells and many of these cures. The web version of the article needed to be updated frequently to show all the recent advances in both finding stem cell sources and cures from stem cells. These include alleviating Parkinson’s, tetraplegia, and diabetes; and regrowing corneas and windpipes. We recommend study for much more detail than is possible in this current article.

Suffice it to say, the ALS Association itself admits that adult stem cells are the best way forward:

Where do stem cells come from?

Stem cells occur naturally, or they can be created from other kinds of cells. Stem cells form during development (embryonic stem cells). They are also present in small numbers in many different tissues (endogenous adult stem cells). Most significantly, stem cells can be created from skin cells (induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells).

iPS cells have emerged in recent years as by far the most significant source of stem cells for ALS research. A simple skin biopsy provides the skin cells (“fibroblasts”). These cells are treated in a lab dish with a precise cocktail of naturally occurring growth factors that “turns back the clock,” transforming them back into cells much like those that gave rise to them—stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells can be isolated from fertilized embryos less than a week old. Before the development of iPS cells, human embryos were the only source of human stem cells for research or therapeutic development. The ethical issues involved hindered development of this research. Most stem cell research in ALS is currently focused on iPS cells, which are not burdened with these issues.5

This is quite an admission that just one source of adult stem cells is much more useful than embryonic stem cells for actual cures. It’s also notable that they referred to ‘ethical’ problems inhibiting research, which is a euphemism for ‘some people objected to killing little people for alleged cures.’ One outright untruth is the claim that until iPS cells were discovered, embryonic stem cells were all that was available—Stem Cells and Genesis documents the large number of alternatives. Embyonic stem cells usage has always been indefensible from both a moral and scientific perspective.

Conclusion—be careful what you support

This particular charity might be a good one for Christians to support, but only if they reject the unethical ESCR, which has cured nothing; and totally embrace the ethical adult stem cell research that really does lead to cures. Sadly, in some quarters, not necessarily in the ALS association, finding cures seems to be secondary to finding an excuse to dehumanize unborn babies. See for example, President Obama okayed funding embryonic stem cell research (but removes adult stem cell funding).

Published: 6 September 2014

References and notes

  1. Leclair, A., Dying ALS patient and his doctors speak out against assisted suicide, globalnews.ca/, 5 June 2013. Return to text.
  2. See also Crandell, C., Critics throw cold water on the Ice Bucket Challenge, worldmag.com, 21 August 2014. Return to text.
  3. Engel, M., ALS Ice Bucket Challenge tops $100 million as researchers ponder next moves, nydailynews.com, 1 September 2014. Return to text.
  4. A Phase I, Open-label, First-in-human Feasibility and Safety Study of Human Spinal Cord derived Neural Stem Cell Transplantation for the Treatment of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, alsconsortium.org, accessed 2 September 2014. Return to text.
  5. Stem Cells, alsa.org, accessed 2 September 2014. Return to text.