Stem cell research began in 1956 when Dr. E Donnall Thomas performed the first bone marrow transplant (“Adult stem cells are not more promising,” 2007). Since that time, research has evolved into obtaining cells from a variety of tissues. According to stem cell research professors, Ariff Bongso and Eng Hin Lee (2005), “Stem cells are unspecialized cells in the human body that are capable of becoming cells, each with new specialized functions” (p. 2). Stem cells are in various adult tissues, such as bone marrow, the liver, the epidermis layer of skin, the central nervous system, and eyes. They are also in other sources, such as fetuses, umbilical cords, placentas, embryos, and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are cells from adult tissues that have been reprogrammed to pluripotency. Most stem cells offer multipotent cells, which are sparse and can only produce a limited number of other tissues. Pluripotent cells, on the other hand, offer large amounts of cells, and each one of these cells can potentially form over 200 cell types (Deem, 2009). Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are pluripotent and are obtained from the inner mass of a 4-5 day old human blastocyst that consists of approximately 100 cells (“Stem cell research,” 2009).
Stem cells are grown on Petri dishes in a laboratory and are never implanted in a woman’s uterus. These cells can be used to create stem cell lines that can grow indefinitely under optimal conditions (“Stem cells and diseases,” 2011). Embryonic stem cells can be obtained from existing stem cell lines (any group of cells that came from the same original embryo), aborted or miscarried embryos, unused in vitro fertilized embryos, and cloned embryos created from somatic cell nuclear transfer (the nucleus from an unfertilized egg is removed and replaced with a nucleus from an adult stem cell). This technique would be used for therapeutic cloning, which could grow organs or skin grafts for patients. However, the only research that is federally funded are a few embryonic stem cell lines created from unused embryos at in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics before 2001 (Dunn, 2005; “Embryonic & fetal research laws,” 2008; Therapeutic cloning, 2009). These lines are not enough to allow scientists to fully explore and take advantage of potential findings.
Limited government support may have also contributed to increased political and religious controversy, which has left prospective socio-economic benefits unrealized. Educating the public could dispel misconceptions and may lead to the opening of more labs and discovery of new medications and immunizations, which in turn could create jobs.
Another misconception is that the scientific community is divided over the issue of stem cell research. William Neaves, president and CEO of Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri noted that support for all types of stem cell research to include somatic cell nuclear transfer is overwhelming. He also stated, “The fact that a handful of scientists may oppose research with early stem cells does not reflect a division of scientific opinion on this issue.” Current organizations that support embryonic stem cell research include the American Medical Association, the National Medical Association, the Association of American Medical Schools, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences (“Adult stem cells are not,” 2007).
Opponents also argue that life begins at the moment of fertilization and to use embryos in research is inhumane (Ham, 2001, para. 3). According to the University of Michigan, the blastocysts used for stem cell research are so young that they have not begun to differentiate into various organs and tissues; none of the seven organ systems required for life are present. Even more compelling is the fact that there are more than 400,000 frozen embryos in IVF clinics and thousands are discarded as medical waste every year. These embryos could potentially be given to couples seeking fertility treatment, but few parents choose to do this; less than 200 cases of children born from donated embryos has been documented since 1997 (“Stem cell research,” 2009). There are also numerous people who are unsure as to what state of development constitutes life, so they believe that since these embryos would be destroyed eventually and because they have the potential to save millions of lives, embryonic stem cell research should be supported by the government (Ham, 2001, para. 3).
Another argument made by opponents of hESC research is that human adult stem cell (hASC) research is superior to hESC research, because it has been conducted far longer and has produced results unlike the latter, which has caused cells to migrate through the body and produce tumors (Deem, 2009). Supporters, such as, Dr. Zach Hall, head of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke and president of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, argues that adult stem cells may be politically advantageous but they do not grow well in cultures, their properties have changed somewhat so their ability to make specialized cells is restricted and they are rare so cures are restricted (“The difference between,” 2010, para. 10, 11).
Still others are convinced that research in all areas must be done in order to progress. According to the Genetic Science Learning Center (2011), a number of experts believe that studying embryonic, adult, and induced stem cells is the only way to advance, and Bongso and Lee (2005) similarly stated, “Both embryonic/fetal and adult stem cells are equally important and research into both types must be enthusiastically pursued…” (para 10; p. 1). Studying blastocysts with as much fever as other areas of stem cell research could provide scientists with insight into how these cells transform into a vast array of specialized cells, the origins of birth defects could be discovered and/or corrected through drug discoveries, and tissues and organs could be replaced. Prospective treatments and cures from pluripotent cells are numerous and could include Parkinson’s disease, ALS, spinal cord injuries, burns, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis (“Stem cells and diseases,” 2011). However, these medical breakthroughs may never become reality without educational or monetary support from the Federal Government.
Increasing Federal Funds
In 2010, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the United States Department of Health, allocated 414.4 million for non-embryonic stem cell research and only 165.2 million for embryonic stem cell research (“NIH stem cell research,” 2011). The fact that adult stem cell research has made more progress could be attributed to the 250 million more in funding it receives every year. Appropriate funding in all areas of stem cell research could increase resources available and make way for advancements.
Opponents state that increasing federal funding for hESCs would be a waste of taxpayer money because no results have been produced, and it would slow research in other areas that have made progress (May, 2006). Currently, the NIH does not allow any research to be conducted in a laboratory where federally funded stem cells are located. This has resulted in the creation and maintenance of separate laboratories when private or state funds are used. This restriction is wasteful and time-consuming. Loosening restrictions could unite moneys from all sectors ensuring continuity and standards are upheld, easing minds of opponents and eliminating the bureaucracy associated with complex rules and regulations, which hinders progress on all levels (“Center for American Progress,” 2009, para. 8-9).
Finally, the government should ease restrictions on embryonic stem cell research because most of the initial authorized stem cell lines from President Bush’s executive order do not contain the genetic material needed to conduct research that could find cures for “disease-causing genetic defects” [race-specific diseases carry certain genetic markers] or they have been contaminated with mouse feeder cells, which make them unusable for studies involving human patients. (“Stem cell research,” 2009; Webb, 2009). Mouse feeder cells are mouse skin cells that have been treated so they will not divide. These cells are placed in the bottom of Petri dishes and provide both nutrients and a surface for the embryonic stem cells to adhere to. These lines cannot be used in human trials because there is a risk of transmitting diseases (Dunn, 2005; “What are embryonic stem cells,” 2010).
President Barack Obama attempted to fix this issue in 2009 when he signed an executive order to loosen some of the restriction and increase funding. During his speech, he appealed to both sides of the issue by ensuring that the government would pursue this through strict guidelines to guarantee there would be no misuse or abuse. He also stated:“When governments fail to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues go unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work. And those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives” (para. 3, 9).
This decision might have opened the doors for advancements that would have eased the suffering and made life better for so many. However, Obama’s decision was short-lived when District Judge Royce Lamberth granted a preliminary injunction on hESC funding on the grounds that it violated the 1996 Dickey-Wicker Amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds to destroy embryos (Fuller, 2010).
This has brought scientist back to square one, diminishing progress and stalling potential scientific discoveries. Currently, only 16 states allow some form of hESC research to be conducted and each state allows various degrees of research on fetuses and/or embryos (“Embryonic & fetal research laws,” 2008). Inconsistencies between state and federal laws coupled with “continued legal wrangling” may lead many scientists to pursue other fields or to look at possible prospects in other countries, which might take jobs and money away from the economy and keep new breakthroughs out of scientific, technical, or medical journals (Fuller, 2010). Without peer-reviewed literature, the United States could lose its competitive edge in medical technology and developments, such as iPSCs. Richard Deem, an evangelical Christian who works as a molecular biologist in Crohn’s disease, argued that the use of iPSCs eliminates the need for embryonic stem cells and avoids the high cost associated with it. Conversely, Neaves suggested that scientists have learned how to stimulate a patient’s own cells to behave like embryonic stem cells, and if research into the mechanism of differentiation of cells is not pursued, advancements in the field of iPSCs would be slowed. Neaves continued his argument by making several analogies in other areas of science. He stated that adult stem cell research has been conducted far longer than embryonic stem cell research, but it does not make it a better option, and if research with bone marrow transplantation had been outlawed 50 years ago, there would have been no list of adult stem cell cures to show people (Deem, 2009; “Adult stem cells are not,” 2007). The key to success is not to outlaw or dispel potential advancements but to use one area of research to further progress in another in a sensible and responsible manner.
The possible benefits from increased federal funding, public education, and loosening restrictions should not be ignored. This could change the quality of life for people of all political, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds. How could providing jobs, lowering costs, and easing the suffering of millions be a bad thing?
Christopher Reeve, who suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of a horseback riding accident, believed that all areas of stem cell therapy should be pursued. He had faith that one day he would be able to function normally because of stem cell therapy (Mader, 2010, p. 584). He did not live to see the government fully support embryonic stem cell research, but he and several other influential people, such as, Michael J. Fox [who is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease], and Brad Pitt, became the driving force behind convincing the voters in California to accept Proposition 71, which allocated state money for embryonic stem cell research (Dunn, 2005). Although this was a step in the right direction, it was not enough to make a serious impact.
Arguments regarding reasons why embryonic stem cell research should not be federally funded or why restrictions should not be eased will continue to be a controversial issue; however, these arguments will also bring to light all the possibilities that hESC research has to offer. Without support from the Federal Government, negative attitudes may continue to thwart legislation, funding may dry up, and restrictions may affect all areas of stem cell research. Obama said it best when he stated, “… the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided” (2009, para. 6).
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