Stem Cell Research

[From Connect Column Archives]
There has been much said about human embryonic stem cell research. Now that President George W. Bush has taken a position against spending federal tax dollars for embryonic stem cell research except with existing cell lines, it is time to try to understand what really has happened.
There is an enormous misconception about what scientists are saying to us. Part of this misconception is because scientists speak in different words than most folks understand. When people hear the word, “stem”, the first thing that may come to mind is the stalk of a plant. Well, that isn’t it.
Others may associate the words, “stem cells”, with the brain stem in humans, a particular region of the brain. I read an article in one newspaper that said scientists wanted to “create human embryos ….for the sole purpose of killing the baby and harvesting stem cells from his or her little brain”. This is totally inaccurate, too.
So, what are the facts? When a human egg cell is joined by a sperm cell, fertilization occurs. The sperm and the egg are alive before fertilization, at fertilization, and together as one cell after fertilization. The moment the sperm and egg join is conception. This is the moment many have chosen to say a new human being exists. Only one cell exists at that time. That single cell is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
Almost immediately, things happen. The one cell divides to become two cells. The two cells divide to become four cells. Four become eight, and so on. In eight cell divisions, the number of cells goes from the original one to 256. Even so, the physical space occupied by the 256 cells is still about the size of a period.
If one looks at these cells under a microscope, they are clumped together in a little ball and they all look alike. These are the magical embryonic stem cells. Try as you may, no matter how high the power of the microscope, one cannot see a miniature human being there. These cells are the cells whose descendents later develop into highly complex tissues, organs, bone, blood, and all the other things that make up a human body. They have not become different one from another, but each has the potential to become anything one finds in a human body.
These cells with their unlimited potential are what scientist believe hold the secrets to cures for many of the most heart wrenching diseases and conditions in human beings. These are the cells that scientists want to explore and understand. Most scientists believe these cells, which have never been any specialized tissue, offer the most promise as opposed to ‘adult stem cells’ which have specialized to some degree. It is believed once a cell or its descendents start down the path of becoming a special cell like a heart or nerve cell, there is no turning back. The trip is one way.
So, with the President’s policy statement, where are we? If you hold the religious belief that a new human life begins at conception and that using embryonic stems cells for research kills a human being, that is it. If doing stem cell research is in the same category as abortion, no embryonic stem cell research is acceptable. Period.
There seems to be considerable inconsistency with this position, however. Most who are against embryonic stem cell research do not oppose fertility clinic procedures that result in deep freezing and, if unused, disposal of many, many more embryos created in a glass dish than ever find their way into a woman’s womb. By their standards, it is OK for many embryos to be ‘killed’ so that one or two may be born. This looks like blatant rationalization. Consistency demands being against both if against one.
If you hold a more flexible view, a clearer understanding of the President’s position becomes more important. The President wants us to believe he has taken a middle road on the embryonic stem cell issue. He has not.
The President gave the green light on supporting embryonic stem cell research on the “60 existing cell lines”. More facts will unfold in future weeks, but at present it is not at all clear where “60”came from. Many believe the number is significantly less, that the cell lines that do exist are held mostly by private enterprises world wide who may not want to share them with others, and that many embryonic cell lines are either defective or not viable for the long term.
If new cell lines cannot be created, significant and concerted embryonic stem cell research simply will not happen in the United States. Federal research dollars are vital to the creation of a research effort of size in our universities and public research centers. These are the institutions that share knowledge which advances science at the highest possible rate. Private research does not do that. Private research is more concerned with profits to the enterprise doing the research and then, if at all, the sharing of information.
The President’s decision, if upheld, condemns literally millions to unnecessary suffering and/or early death who may have been able to lead longer and better lives if the promise of embryonic stem cell research is realized. It condemns family and friends to years of anguish, frustration, and sorrow.
Scientists want desperately to understand how stem cells work. If they do, they will be able to cure diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, and cancer. They will be able to grow skin tissue for burn victims and cardiac tissue for damaged hearts. They will be able to repair nerves damaged by strokes and spinal-cord injuries. The list goes on.
The United States is currently the world leader in biology. Placing severe limitations on human embryonic stem cell research in this country opens the door for other nations to take the lead. They will.

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