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This was written by my sister-in-law, Marla C. Hull
Stem cell research is controversial, but it shouldn't be. Marla explains how this research is beneficial and ongoing. Unfortunately ill-informed zealots have made it one of their causes, slowing progress for us all.
PROMISE OF HOPE
Marla C. Hull
December 10, 2006
Because we are on the brink of discovering promising medical treatments and cures, we must aggressively continue all aspects of stem cell research. Stem cell research is not illegal. In fact, adult stem cells have been medically utilized in bone marrow transplants for over 40 years as well as in treatment of certain blood disorders. (NIH, 2006) We have found ourselves in a scientific research world of medical advancement with stem cell research dotting newspaper headlines and airing on television news reports daily, ethical issues in tow.
Many of us do not know the full story of medical research of stem cells and its implications. We may know the limelight stories the media forcefully informs us of, but do not have the interest or the time to fully research for ourselves to formulate our own opinion. It might be considered just another item of debate, pulling in religious organizations voicing morality issues as well as the argument of monetary support by federal funding. Whether we agree or not, we may be left feeling helpless for any successful intervention to make a difference.
I feel we can all relate to this topic in somewhat of a personal nature given the fact we probably have either had an acquaintance, friend, or family member who has been in a medically compromised position of illness, disease, or even premature death. I would like to help educate you as a reader to learn more about stem cell research and present facts differentiating between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. My goal is to enlighten the reader by bringing realization and understanding of the important significance of stem cell therapies in human medical treatments. We are only at the beginning stages of what miracles are yet to come with aggressive stem cell research.
We all know that a cell is the basic unit of all living organisms. Normal human cells function in a specialized way and cannot do anything other than what they are intended. Skin cells function as skin; liver cells function as the liver organ and so on.
Stem cells, on the other hand, do not have a specialized function, but are unique in their capability of becoming many different cell types. They are also capable of multiplying continually and serve the purpose of self-renewal in terms of healing. Stem cells can be found in bone marrow, blood, skeletal muscle, the nervous system, skin, and the liver. They are also found in placenta, umbilical cords, and embryos. Stem cells are few in number and are thought to lie dormant until the body is injured or diseased, at which time they regenerate and repair by supplying new cells. (NIH, 2006)
Adult stem cells continue to be thought of as multipotent, ones that have limited potential for specializing. Treatments with the use of adult stem cells have been successfully implemented in the field of medicine for many years. Bone marrow transplants are commonplace for those who suffer from leukemia, lymphoma, anemia, and other blood or immune system disorders.
In a 2004, USA Today article, Catherine Verfaillie, a prominent adult stem cell researcher from the University of Minnesota states there may have been possible false optimism of initial adult stem cell reports with consideration of embryonic stem cells being the ‘gold standard’ for flexibility. She also indicated that she and most researchers would prefer to study both kinds of cells (Vergano, 2004). In two short years stem cell research has generated scientific excitement with the discovery of adult stem cells found in more tissues than once thought possible (NIH, 2006).
Several scientific resources indicate there are recent breakthroughs happening with adult stem cells. Initially thought impossible, some of these cells seem to be capable of developing from one tissue type into cells of another tissue type. No adult cells, however, have been found to have the capacity of embryonic stem cells in their ability to specialize into all other cells. With knowledge of both embryonic and adult stem cells, we are continuing to make new discoveries, clearly indicating that they both go hand in hand, each benefiting from the other.
The discovery of embryonic stem cell (ESC) isolation and research can be credited to pioneering efforts of Dr. James A. Thomson at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Dr. Thomson has been the team director of those who worked to discover the isolation of embryonic stem cells lines of a non-human primate in 1995. Subsequently, his team’s work also led to the discovery of human embryonic stem cell line isolation in 1998 using frozen embryos (Thomson lab website:http://ink.primate.wisc.edu/~thomson/jamie.html).
“Once a stem cell line is established from a cell in the body, it is essentially immortal, no matter how it was derived. That is, the researcher using the line will not have to go through the rigorous procedure necessary to isolate stem cells again. Once established, a cell line can be grown in the laboratory indefinitely and cells may be frozen for storage or distribution to other researchers.” (NIH, 2006)
This is all well and good, however there is a problem or two. Only currently established ESC lines are approved for federal funding, which are few in comparison to the potential number that exist. By using these lines over and over again, the quality of the culture media and cells seems to be questioned. The process of deriving new lines is very time consuming and very expensive with private sector funding unable to support.
Embryonic stem cells are even more unique in their potential, yet undiscovered abilities. They are blood cells not yet having a specific home in the human body at their primitive level of development. They are termed pluripotent. This means they have the potential to become any specialized cell layer of tissue, however they do not have the possibility of becoming a human being.
Embryonic stem cells are grown in laboratories for months without differentiation or specialization. These cells are gathered for research from excess in-vitro fertilized embryos that would otherwise be discarded after 5 days of gestation. This is when cellular formation is only a few cells, under one hundred in number, and is considered a blastocyte. To put this into perspective, this represents a fertilized egg traveling through the woman’s fallopian tube, but not yet at the implantation stage of pregnancy. “By adding or subtracting out certain proteins to the stem cells collected, scientists can coax the cells to develop into ones of heart muscle, bone, nerve, or other tissue cells”(Boyle, 2005).
Embryonic stem cells are the new kids on the block causing a ruckus of media attention with federal funding debate. Prior to the 2001 Bush Administration decision to limit funding to established embryonic lines, no federal funds had been used in support of stem cell research of embryonic or fetal tissue. Bush’s decision was a step forward from the Clinton administration, yet openly criticized by the media for taking a middle of the road stance. If politics were not involved, "the field of embryonic stem cell research would be much more advanced than it is today," research pioneer Thomson says, (Vergano, 2004).
Another avenue of debate is the stance of the Catholic religion specifically.
“On the other side are views that suggest ‘moral tradition does urge us to treat each and every living member of the human species, including the early embryo, as a human person with fundamental rights, the first of which is the right to life,’ in the words of Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For that reason, research opponents consider the destruction of embryos for stem cells to be murder”(Vergano, 2004).
We have already crossed moral and ethical boundaries years ago with the medical procedure of abortion, which ends the life of an implanted embryo often times at the fetal stage of development. This is a growing human child. The decision of legalization based on the Supreme Court’s decision is still withheld today. I think society, whether agreeable or not, has become accustomed to living with “freedom of choice” for women and media attention has gone by the wayside. It’s old stuff. What I do not understand is how this new controversial item of stem cell usage can be considered a murder- like abortion.
We are a selfish people who continue to give in to desire and want. We are now growing test tube babies for in-vitro fertilization for those can’t conceive but want a child. Surplus embryos are frozen. Can these cellular organisms feel the torture of subzero degrees if indeed deemed to be a living being? Does an unwanted, unused embryo feel its life slipping away as it dies when it is thrown out or washed down a laboratory sink? I do not think so. I feel it is only common sense to use these otherwise doomed “embryos” to help advance medical research.
I’m sure we all agree that life must be respected, and yes, an embryo is life. However, I can’t be totally persuaded that the cellular collections used in embryonic stem cell research are truly embryos. They are primitive biological growth formations, which do not have the capacity to become human until implantation into the uterus. According to Benfu Li, M.D., Professor of Dept. of Medical Ethics, Peking University, “most Chinese scholars think the embryo is human biological life, not human life (Li). They, therefore, approve of human embryonic stem cell research for improving human’s health.
People who are in medical need are by far greater in number than cures from treatment breakthrough such as organs for transplantation, prevention of birth defects, or regeneration of healthy tissue to replace damaged. The treatment possibilities are endless when we think of many common diseases or disabilities such as diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and spinal cord injury. These are just a few of the myriad of medical conditions that could benefit from continued stem cell research and its sure and steady progress.
“The debate regarding whether adult stem cells or embryonic stem cells are ‘better’ is a creation of politics and the press, not of the scientific community,” says stem cell scientist James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “I know of no credible stem cell scientist that does not believe that both should be studied; human medicine will suffer if either is excluded” (Vergano, 2004).
With current research, it is proven that adult stem cell treatment is a better choice for patients. We have a ready supply of cells in our own body, which means no chance for immune rejection. Physicians have been clinically treating patients successfully with stem cell transplants for quite some time. I think we have much to discover in the ESC world and any knowledge is pertinent knowledge to both types of stem cells. The thought of using embryonic cells to grow an organ for medication testing prior to human consumption is amazing. Or how about growing heart valves to replace those found malfunctioning in an infant. It’s futuristic, space-age stuff and frankly, I’m sure it is quite frightening to the public. But, I think it’s time for politics and media to but out and let the wheels of scientific minds turn, allowing them to carry out their work, in the best interest of human health.
“The real lasting contribution of human embryonic stem cell research may be increased knowledge of the human body which could change human medicine even more dramatically than new transplantation therapies,” Thomson says (Boyle, 2005).
Let’s not stop our progress for helping mankind. Because of advancement in medical research, whether morally valid in opinion or not, humans have and will continue to benefit greatly. Perhaps we will be the ones who need an organ transplant or a cure of cancer requiring some type of medical procedure or medication that was once unheard of. Will our treatment have been discovered and implemented from stem cell research?
Boyle, A., Updated June 25, 2005, Stem cell pioneer does a reality check. Retrieved
November 30. 2006, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8303756
Johnson, J.A., Stem cell research, Report for Congress, Updated March 10, 2003.
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Li, B., The significance of human embryo stem cell research and its ethical disputes.
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Stem cell information, National Institute of Health (NIH), U.W. Department of Health
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Thomson Lab, Updated November 1, 2006. Retrieved November 30, 2006 from
Vergano, D., States dive into stem cell debates, USATODAY.com, Health and
Behavior, Updated April, 21, 2004. Retrieved November 12, 2006 from