“Stem cell research is the key to developing cures for degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease from which I and many others suffer. The fact that the cells may come from embryos is not an objection, because the embryos are going to die anyway.”
— Stephen Hawking
The phrase “stem cell” calls to mind images of controversy: Pro-life picketers outside abortion and in-vitro fertilization clinics, patients with chronic disabilities waiting on a cure, scientists in a lab experimenting with a petri dish. These cells offer unimaginable opportunities for regenerative medicine because they can retain the ability to differentiate. Stem cells are classified as either adult or embryonic. Embryonic stem cells can reproduce any cell in the body, whereas adult stem cells can only produce somatic cells within their own tissue type. Somatic simply means a cell that is not directly involved in sexual reproduction. What makes research into stem cells exciting is that they can provide a means to regenerate cells in a way that humans cannot accomplish on their own. Spinal cord tissue can be regenerated in paraplegics, giving a new lease on life to war veterans. Mental diseases associated with age such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, can be cured. Even entire organs can be reconstructed and implanted into patients that desperately need them, such as in the case of Claudia Castillo, who received a bronchus coated with her own cells.
Why then is such a cutting-edge and promising field subject to so much controversy? Because one of the primary sources for stem cells is blastocysts, undeveloped microscopic human offspring only 200 cells large. Generally the opponents of stem cell research are also pro-life, or opponents of abortion, as the process for isolating stem cells from blastocysts often destroys the blastocyst and any potential for life. In order for stem cell research to be considered morally justified by an individual, one would have to consider blastocysts to be cells that are ‘living and human’, rather than being a ‘living human’, or at least weigh the positive good that treatments derived from stem cells can provide against the negative drawbacks of destroying a potential life.
Studying cadavers was as equally a distasteful process in its own time, as stem cell research is to some people today. “[Dissection] was so reviled by the public that even in the nineteenth century, there was a near state of hysteria to prevent it.” However, most people today recognize that without it we would only have rudimentary knowledge of human anatomy, and a plethora of treatments and procedures would never have been discovered. Regardless, until 1719 the practice was heavily regulated in Great Britain, and “any physicians known to perform human dissections were excommunicated by the Church.”2 “Stem cell research…today is in many ways analogous to the treatment of dissections.” Stem cell research will contribute to modern medicine in ways we can only imagine, but it needs federal funding and guidelines to get there as soon as possible. Many Americans who have fallen victim to Multiple Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s Disease no longer have the luxury of time, a commodity currently being wasted by political posturing to satiate a vocal and misleading minority.
Stem cells have been in use since the first successful bone marrow transplant over 40 years ago. Human bone marrow contains adult stem cells, specifically hematopoietic, or blood-generating, stem cells. The controversial flavor is embryonic stem cells, which have captivated imaginations and headlines since James Thomson first developed a method to obtain them in November 1998. Beginning with the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, fears of human cloning and the creation of chimeras, animal-human hybrids, as well as protests from Pro-life groups, pressured politicians to enact stringent restrictions on the procedures of stem cell labs that receive government aid.
The Department of Health and Human Services maintained a moratorium on federal funding for research on embryos and fetuses, as well as in vitro fertilization, until President Clinton issued an executive order lifting it in 1993. However, Congress banned federal funding for human embryo research by adding legislation known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to every appropriations bill for the National Institutes of Health since 1995, making it impossible for the President to overturn the ban without also cutting the cash flow to the NIH. This restriction remains in place today. On August 9, 2001, President Bush “clarifies which human embryonic stem cells can be used under federal funding rules” by stating that any lines derived from excess IVF blastocysts before his announcement are eligible for grants. Then in 2009, President Obama lifted the ‘made-before’ restriction for stem cell lines but maintained the ban on creation and destruction of embryos for research purposes.
With all these restrictions and complications, many scientists started to consider moving their research to countries with more liberal stem cell policies, such as Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom. To combat this potential brain drain and create jobs within their own borders, states began to enact laws promoting stem cell research. Most notable is California, who in 2004 pledged to spend $3 billion on stem cell research, and gave it constitutional protection. Still, states vary on what practices they allow, and the lack of universal standards makes collaboration difficult. And a great deal of appropriations go to duplicating lab technology so as to make sure not to upset the confusing regulatory laws. If the federal government funded all forms of stem cell research, it could implement policies that were consistent across state lines, thereby promoting collaboration and eliminating waste from having twice the necessary amount of lab infrastructure.
Terms such as adult and embryonic may not mean much to lay people in terms of stem cells. As you may have guessed, adult stem cells are found in adults. But, they are also found in the umbilical cord. What makes adult stem cells different from their embryonic counterparts is that they may only create cells within their own tissue group, whereas embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can “generate any kind of cell in the adult body”. Embryonic stem cells come from the inner cell of a blastocyst, which is the last stage of a zygote in in-vitro fertilization before it is implanted in a woman’s uterus and becomes a fetus. It is these cells that are controversial because most lab practices destroy the blastocyst to isolate the stem cells. Fortunately, a Massachusetts biotech company was able to remove one cell from an 8-cell embryo without destroying it as part of a process called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis(PGD). In this process, the removed cell is tested for genetic diseases that it may have inherited from the parents. The same process could be used to culture embryonic stem cells and allow the embryo to “grow into a normal baby” at the same time.
One common misconception is that stem cells only come from aborted fetuses, and that as a result women will be more likely to choose an abortion if she knows it will contribute to scientific research. In reality, only fetal germ cells, a certain type of stem cell found in four- to six-week-old fetuses, are developed from fetal tissue, and most groups against embryonic stem cell research do not protest this type of research. These germ cells do not even possess much therapeutic potential in the eyes of many researchers. Most embryonic stem cells come from frozen blastocysts left over from IVF procedures. In-vitro fertilization entails the production of 8-10 blastocysts so that they can be tested for viability and give the prospective parents the best chance possible at conception. Not all blastocysts are used of course, and these surplus frozen blastocysts would otherwise be discarded as biomedical waste.
Another myth is that stem cell research will inevitably lead to human cloning. The truth is that most people in the scientific community agree that human cloning is not only impossible with current technology, but that even if it were possible it would be unfavorable and immoral. Most animal clones have very short life spans and many health defects, so even if a human clone was somehow produced, the mistake would in all likelihood be short-lived.
Even though embryonic stem cell research is in its infancy, most scientists agree that it is a highly promising field for the treatment and curing of many chronic degenerative illnesses. Amyotropic lateral sclerosis(ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, destroys motor neurons which are responsible for muscle movement. Stem cells could be used to replace these neurons, as well as damaged nervous tissue present in Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s. Even if the stem cells themselves are not used in treatments until much later in the future, they can be used to grow diseased tissue for study and for testing potential drugs on.
Stem cells also have the potential to cure Type 1 Diabetes. In this disease the immune system attacks and destroys the body’s own pancreatic beta cells, crippling the patient’s ability to produce insulin. Stem cells can be used to repair the damage by replacing the lost beta cells, and the patient can take immune-suppressing drugs to prevent new damage.
Adult stem cells have been used for over 40 years in bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia. In this procedure, the patient is subjected to radiation to destroy his existing immune system, and is then injected with bone marrow from a compatible donor to replace it. This works because bone marrow contains hematopoietic stem cells, which can produce over 20 types of red and white blood cells.
Another potential utilization of embryonic stem cells is the creation of replacement limbs and organs that cannot be rejected by the body. In 2008, a Colombian woman received a new bronchus grown from her own stem cells. The process took a cadaver’s bronchus, a branch of the trachea, and stripped it of its cells with enzymes and detergent. The resulting ‘scaffold’ was then coated with the patient’s stem cells from her bone marrow and left to grow in a ‘bio-reactor’. Once it was complete, it was cut to fit the tuberculosis-damaged tissue of the patient and transplanted. “Just four days after transplantation, the graft was almost indistinguishable from adjacent, normal bronchi”, says Prof. Macchiarini. The best part about this breakthrough: the patient, Claudia Castillo, has exhibited “no sign of her immune system rejecting the transplanted organ”14, which is usually a problem for transplant patients and requires them to take immune-suppressing drugs for the rest of their lives. Doctors are optimistic that this type of procedure can be expanded to all sorts of organs, and that it will revolutionize transplantations.
Despite all these exciting potential leaps in health technology, many oppose embryonic stem cell research on moral and religious grounds. Generally, pro-lifers, or people opposed to abortion, also tend to oppose experimenting with embryonic stem cells. One reason is the perception that allowing such experiments would legitimize abortion as an appropriate decision, since the abortion would provide a resource for the experiments and thereby contribute to human knowledge. But in reality only the first stem cells came from fetal tissue and most, if not all, embryonic stem cells come from leftover IVF blastocysts, not aborted fetuses. And in the last 30 years, no evidence has been found that a woman’s choice to abort was influenced by its ability to contribute to stem cell research.
Another reason that the right-to-life crowd is against embryonic stem cell research is because they believe that life begins with the zygote, and that destroying it any point after that stage constitutes murder. In the Vatican’s official statement, they state that person-hood begins at conception when the zygote is infused with a soul, and as a result, said zygote is entitled to the protection of the law. Many Christian Americans of various denominations share this conviction. Some call for methods to extract stem cells without destroying the blastocyst, like in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. Others, including former President George W. Bush, argue that rather than use the surplus IVF blastocysts for research, they should be frozen indefinitely until they are ‘adopted’ by other infertile couples. This option has been available for years, but since 1980, only a hundred or so ‘snowflake babies’ have been born. These results make sense: after all, “those who are not able to become genetic parents can adopt live children without going through the risk and trouble of pregnancy”. This very low rate means that embryo adoption is not a viable solution to the growing amount of frozen embryos. Even if it were, the federal government has no jurisdiction over the “dispensation of embryos”. That is still the prerogative of the genetic parents. Finally, some call for the end of current IVF practices responsible for the surplus. This is unreasonable, however, as each cycle of in-vitro fertilization costs about $10,000. Infertile mothers want this money to lead to a successful pregnancy, and as only 30% of embryos actually implant to the uterine wall, the creation, storage, and use of multiple embryos is necessary, especially if the first attempt fails. Over 400,000 frozen blastocysts exist in IVF clinics throughout the Unites States of America, of which many will have to be discarded as biological waste. For James Thomson, who grew the first embryonic stem cells, “'[the morality of stem cell research is] a very complex issue, but to me it boils down to [using embryos to help people rather than throwing them out]’”. On a side note, Christianity is the only major religion in the United States to formally express concern and distaste for stem cell research.
The last popular argument against working with embryonic stem cells is that it may lead to human cloning, and possibly the creation of fully developed, half-man, half-animal creatures known as cybrids and chimeras. Clones have terrified people since their debut on Hollywood, but in actuality, creating human clone armies is impossible with current technologies, and the animal clones that have been successfully created tend to age rapidly or have crippling birth defects. Still, cloning has had a significant impact on our culture, evidenced by the science-fiction book The House of the Scorpion. In this book, Mateo, the 10-year-old clone of a wealthy drug lord, is first treated like the son of a cleaning woman, until he discovers a stamp on his foot that reads ‘property of El Patron’. When his quest to discover its meaning results in his first contact with the outside world, he is locked away from view and treated “like a dog.” Then El Patron, the opiate kingpin, comes to his aid and treats him like a son until El Patron suffers from a heart attack. At this point in the story, Mateo discovers that he is the latest in a line of clones that were created and raised for the singular purpose of harvesting replacement organs for El Patron. It is this fate that right-to-life groups claim is the future of the United States if therapeutic cloning is sanctioned by law. Mainstream scientists agree that making human clones is undesirable because of the potential harm to both the clone and the mother, and that it will remain the stuff of fiction for the foreseeable future. However, therapeutic cloning holds a great deal of legitimate promise for suffering patients. In this procedure, a somatic, or adult, stem cell is taken from the patient and placed inside an egg cell that has its genetic material removed. This is called Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer(SCNT). It is the same process that led to the creation of Dolly the cloned sheep. The resulting zygote is activated by electricity and chemicals, and in theory should divide until it becomes a microscopic blastocyst, which can be harvested to obtain embryonic stem cells genetically identical to the patient. This process is completely removed from the concept presented in The House of the Scorpion, as the embryo is harvested before it has developed a consciousness, the capacity to feel pain or love, or developed any organs whatsoever. However, currently every attempt has failed before the zygote grew enough to provide stem cell lines.
Cybrids and chimeras, on the other hand, have been created for research purposes for about 40 years. A cybrid, in technical terms, is a cell “whose nucleus is from one source and whose cytoplasm is from another source.” They have been used to gain knowledge on cell division control and the locations and duties of certain human genes. In the future they may even be used to create blastocysts for research. Human female eggs are painful and dangerous to harvest, so scientists may begin to use rabbit or cow eggs to house human genetic material. There is no need to worry, though, as the eggs are stripped of nearly all genetic material and therefore cannot create minotaurs nor bunny-people. Chimeras are organisms whose bodies house cells with different sets of DNA. They get their name from the creature in Greek mythology, “a fire-breathing lion whose tail was a serpent and who had a goat’s head protruding from its back”. In research, mice are injected with human cancer cells to study cancer and test possible treatments. The presence of the human cells makes them technically chimeras, but they do not possess any human characteristics. Similarly, chimeras are utilized to study diseases like Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Still, for some people, the combination of human and animal genetic material in these ways is unnatural and unethical, even if it does not yield a fully developed mythical creature.
Across the aisle from conservatives, many people believe that the current restrictions on embryonic stem cell research are hampering scientific efforts and delaying potentially life-changing discoveries. There are currently over 100 million people with chronic disabilities living in America; many of them could be saved by stem cell cures. Multiple sclerosis, cancer, spinal cord injuries, strokes, heart disease, and retinal degeneration, as well as diabetes and the neurodegenerative diseases previously discussed, could all be treated or better understood through embryonic stem cell research. Even if a blastocyst has a soul, opponents of stem cell research must also realize the hope that it represents for the sufferers of these terrible diseases. In the words of Barack Obama, “Those who speak out against stem cell research may be rooted in an admirable conviction about the sacredness of life, but so are the parents of a child with juvenile diabetes who are convinced that their son’s or daughter’s hardships can be relieved”.
If the ability to help those in need wasn’t enough, the more pragmatic concern of maintaining American supremacy in science and technology should be. Without federal funding and the resulting national policies and standards, the United States could well fall behind nations like Japan and the United Kingdom, where policies are more liberal towards embryonic stem cell research. The current lack of nationwide standards makes collaboration all but impossible, and leads to a waste of monetary resources. Intellectual resources are also at risk; scientists may feel that their research would be better off if they took it to a different country where at the very least there would not be restrictive and confusing guidelines. Without governmental intervention, discoveries of breakthrough procedures could be unnecessarily delayed by months or even years.
One secondary, but no less important, result of federal funding is the creation of jobs in the biomedical field. With unemployment rates on the rise due to the recession, states have begun to compete with each other for the potential bonanza that stem cell miracle cures represent. However, because of the conservative opposition to stem cell research, politicians from traditionally red states are stuck in a thorny “jobs-vs.-values dilemma”. In the meantime, blue states are widening the technological gap, with California owning “29% of U.S. biotech companies, including powerhouses Amgen and Genentech”. Regardless of politics, one thing is certain: Federal funding into embryonic stem cells will infallibly create jobs, something our economy needs desperately.
But all these benefits mean nothing if it means we are ideologically aligned with the Nazis, killing and torturing innocents in cruel experiments. In the 1980s, to develop some kind of benchmark for person-hood and avoid legalizing murder, Great Britain’s Warnock Commission decided that the development of the primitive streak makes an embryo an individual. The primitive streak is a thickening line that eventually becomes the central nervous system, signifying that the embryo can no longer divide into twins, thereby making it the beginnings of a person and no longer a collection of cells. This timeline is decidedly pro-research because most blastocysts are harvested for stem cells in 3-5 days, and the primitive streak takes 14 days to develop. Even the scientific community is divided on whether or not to recognize this cut-off point, but many countries make use of it in distinguishing between a ‘living human’ and cells that are ‘living and human’.
In conclusion, embryonic stem cell research has the potential to better the lives of millions of people, and the process can become streamlined if the federal government passes legislation allowing it to continue unfettered. With national funding comes policies and procedures that will be common across all states, enabling nationwide collaboration and eliminating the waste of appropriations due to the duplication of technological infrastructure. In addition, the removal of a ‘paperwork web’ will encourage scientists to stay in the country, and allow the private sector to feel safe about investing in the biotech industry. However, such legislation will be impossible to pass as long as an ill-informed conservative minority continues to protest against stem cell research on religious and flimsy scientific grounds. Of course, part of the blame lies with the mass media for incorrectly reporting on various practices in the field and causing many of the common misconceptions. But, if these obstacles can be overcome, revolutionary and life-saving breakthroughs can be discovered that much sooner.
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