Future of Engineering

Monday, March 24, 2008

What's Wrong with Stem Cell Research?

What indeed is wrong with stem cell research?

Well, most folks opposed to stem cell research are not exactly opposed to stem cell research. They are opposed to embryonic stem cell research. What is it?

The two broad types of mammalian stem cells are: embryonic stem cells that are found in developing embryos, and adult stem cells found in adult tissues. In a developing embryo, stem cells can differentiate into all of the specialized embryonic tissues. In adult organisms, stem cells and progenitor cells act as a repair system for the body, replenishing specialized cells, but also maintain the normal turnover of regenerative organs, such as blood, skin or intestinal tissues. (source: Wikipedia, see also NIH Stem Cell Info Home Page)

The methods to get embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of discarded human embryos, usually from fertility clinics. These frozen embryos are created by in vitro fertilization, are no longer needed by the families who produced them, such embryos were available for “adoption". Now you can understand the context. (some FAQs that will throw more light on these: From Wired here & here, http://www.whitehead.mit.edu/news/paradigm/spring_2007/faqs.html, Massachusetts General Hospital, NIH, Reasons to Believe, International Society for Stem Cell Research)

Many pro-lifers believe that human life, in the form of an ovum and spermatozoon, becomes a human person at the time of fertilization. Thus, killing an embryo in order to extract its stem cells is a form of homicide. They are generally opposed to such research. Others disagree. They believe that an embryo has the potential to develop into a person, but is not a person itself. They note that an embryo is not sentient; it has no brain, sensory organs, ability to think, awareness of its surroundings, consciousness, internal organs, arms, legs, head, etc. They feel that research using stem cells derived from embryos is ethical.

So where indeed are we heading with regard to stem cell research in general and embryonic stem cell research in particular? What are the various breakthroughs in this domain? What are the experts and politicians and yes, George W Bush saying?

This compilation looks at this important area of research and debate and provides a list of resources that will hopefully give the reader a better perspective of all the views and facts.

Breakthroughs and Inventions

Human Stem Cells May be Produced without Embryos (Jul 2007) - Japan’s leading genetics researcher could be “a matter of months” from reaching the Holy Grail of biotechnology – producing an “ethical” human stem cell without using a human embryo, he has said. The potential of Professor Yamanaka’s breakthrough work – in which the skin cells of laboratory mice were genetically manipulated back to their embryonic state – has been hailed as the equivalent of “transforming lead into gold”. If the research develops in the way he hopes, runs the excited logic, the ethical problems that have swirled around embryonic stem-cell research would disappear. The concept of artificially inducing adult cells to return to a stem-cell state raises equally attractive possibilities for organ transplantation.

Stem Cell Breakthrough Could Stifle Research (Nov 2007) - Last week independent teams of scientists announced a major advance in stem cell research with their discovery of how to turn human skin cells into an "embryonic" state, enabling these cells to grow into nerve, heart or other types of human cells. The method does not require the destruction of discarded human embryos from fertility clinics, currently the only source of embryonic stem cells. Thus, this would bypass the ethical concern that prompted the Bush White House to sharply limit funding on stem cell research. The discovery, albeit promising, might stifle embryonic stem cell research or send it down a dead-end path, for it is now harder than ever to secure funding to study the best source of embryonic stem cells—that is, embryos.

British Team Grows Human Heart Valve from Stem Cells (Apr 2007) - A British research team led by the world's leading heart surgeon has grown part of a human heart from stem cells for the first time. If animal trials scheduled for later this year prove successful, replacement tissue could be used in transplants for the hundreds of thousands of people suffering from heart disease within three years.

Stem Cell Breakthrough to Challenge Bush Objections (Aug 2006) - A stem cell breakthrough by American scientists is set to overturn ethical objections to potentially live-saving research. They have found how to make stem cells from embryos without destroying the embryo in the process - an advance that could open the door to billions of dollars in research funding. A team at the Advanced Cell Technology - a private company - has found that it is possible to create human stem cells using one or two cells from an early embryo, without doing any damage to the embryo
Stem Cells Patch Holes in Brain without Prompting (Dec 2006) - In research that could be harnessed to speed recovery from stroke or blunt-force trauma to the head, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, report that mice genetically engineered to have holes in a region of their brain recovered due to the work of stem cells in the area.

Stem Cells for Parkinson's Disease: Breakthrough or Hype? - asks this recent post from Wired

Views and Opinions

For Catholics, is Stem Cell Research Worse than Sloth?, asks this March 2008 article in Slate - "The Vatican released a list of seven new sins...Dubbed the "social sins," they include conducting stem-cell research, polluting the environment, and causing poverty. Along with the old standbys—like lust, pride, and greed—these seven are considered to be of the "deadly" variety. What kinds of sins aren't deadly?"...read on

ES Cells without Harming the Embryo (Oct 2005) - scientists have derived embryonic stem cells from a single cell removed from an 8-cell mouse embryo. But they have implanted the remaining seven cells in a female mouse womb and produced apparently normal pregnancies in about half the cases. Hitherto, stem cells have been taken from later stage embryos in a way which destroys their potential to develop any further. This is seen as tantamount to murder by those who regard the early embryo as having the same moral status as a live human baby. If the new method could successfully be done with human early embryos, the researchers say here is a way to obtain embryo stem cells without destroying the embryo. Would this argument work?

Ten Problems with Embryonic Stem Cell Research - A developed stem cell line comes from a single embryo, becoming a colony of cells that reproduces indefinitely. Consider now the following ten problems with Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR).
1. The issue of who or what
2. The deliberate misuse of terminology in defining stem cells
3. ESCR is related to human cloning
4. The current status of ESCR in the U.S. is unsettled at best
5. There is law that could apply to ESCR
6. Polls show that the American people do not approve using public money to destroy human embryos in medical research
7. ESCR puts us on the road to growing humans for body parts
8. Contemporary moral issues often follow the flow of money
9. ESCR currently has major disadvantages
10. The Success and Promise of Adult Stem Cell

For these ten reasons the author's conclusion is that more dollars should be invested in adult stem cell research and the macabre research associated with ESCR should be abandoned entirely.

Stem Cell Research: All Viewpoints - Many pro-lifers believe that human life, in the form of an ovum and spermatozoon, becomes a human person at the time of fertilization. Thus, killing an embryo in order to extract its stem cells is a form of homicide. They are generally opposed to such research. Others disagree. They believe that an embryo has the potential to develop into a person, but is not a person itself. They note that an embryo is not sentient; it has no brain, sensory organs, ability to think, awareness of its surroundings, consciousness, internal organs, arms, legs, head, etc. They feel that research using stem cells derived from embryos is ethical.

Thousands of Adult Stem Cell Deaths Show Urgency of Embryonic Research (Apr 2007) - Steven Edwards in this article says “They're mass murderers, in fact. In only five years between 2000 and 2004, adult stem cells used in some 25,000 bone marrow transplant treatments have been complicit in at least 3,629 American deaths, 624 of which involved children under the age of 18, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. If the trend continues, adult stem cells will claim their 5,000th victim since 2000 this year.” These data, he says, show that more research is required into embryonic stem cells.

Is A Life for a Life Required?

What's Wrong with Embryonic Stem Cell Research? (an old but good article, Jul 2001) - Many people have come out in opposition to stem cell research. Why? Because the major source of stem cells for research today is embryos, and the embryos are destroyed in the process of extracting the stem cells. What's the big deal? Genetically, an embryo is a human being. A very tiny, undeveloped human being, but a human being nonetheless. Even if stem cell treatments ultimately prove successful, embryonic stem cell treatment involves the deliberate killing of a human being in order to use his body parts to treat another human being. Supporters of embryonic stem cell research point to all sorts of good that might result. They paint glowing pictures of the diseases that might be cured and the people who might be helped. But does this justify killing an innocent human being?, asks this article.

Embryonic stem cell research flawed (Mar 2008) - "I've tried to do research to compare ESCR to ASCR (adult stem cell research); I refuse to be bullied into supporting what is obviously the destruction of human tissue just because I have a loved one with a disorder who needs help." - strong words indeed

Pros & Cons of Embryonic Stem Cell Research (from About.com) - Embryonic stem cells are thought by most scientists and researchers to hold potential cures for spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, hundreds of rare immune system and genetic disorders and much more. Over 100 million Americans suffer from diseases that eventually may be treated more effectively or even cured with embryonic stem cell therapy. Some researchers regard this as the greatest potential for the alleviation of human suffering since the advent of antibiotics. Many pro-lifers believe that the proper moral and religious course of action is to save existing life through embryonic stem cell therapy

What is Wrong With Embryonic Stem Cell Research? (from God & Science, a pretty well-detailed and insightful article) - Embryonic stem cell research is a hot topic that seems to pit anti-abortion conservatives against pro-abortion liberals. The conservatives claim that there are better alternatives to embryonic stem cells, while the liberals claim that conservatives are blocking research that will provide cures to many tragic diseases. Much of the rhetoric is designed to muddy the waters to invoke emotional responses of those within each camp. This paper is designed to break through sound-bites and go the heart of the matter - what are the scientific issues that impact the question of stem cell research.

Key Ethical Issues in Stem Cell Research - from the Australian Parliament Reports (PDF)


What Are The Benefits of Stem Cell Research (Feb 2007)

Stem Cell Basics (from National Institutes of Health, USA) - Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body. Serving as a sort of repair system for the body, they can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell. More from this article

Egg Harvesting and Embryonic Stem-cell Research Pose Serious Threat to Women’s Health (Mar 2007) - A congressional hearing in 2007 raised awareness on the risks to women’s health and fertility by in vitro fertilization (IVF), human cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, where experts testified the techniques and drugs involved posed unacceptable risks to women's health.

Research Ethics and Stem Cells (National Institutes of Health, USA) - Stem cells show potential for many different areas of health and medical research, and studying them can help us understand how they transform into the dazzling array of specialized cells that make us what we are. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are caused by problems that occur somewhere in this process. A better understanding of normal cell development will allow us to understand and perhaps correct the errors that cause these medical conditions

Stem Cell Research & George Bush

Scientists Sideline Bush Opposition to Stem Cell Research (Jun 2006) - Harvard scientists have said they will bypass President Bush's moratorium on state funding of embryonic stem cell research by using privately sourced cash. It's thought it will be the first non-commercial enterprise to work on human embryos in the US. An executive order from Bush in 2001 banned the use of public money for research on human embryonic stem cells other than just 22 old lines which have since been branded useless because of contamination. Two groups will work on creating new human stem cell lines derived from surplus IVF embryos. They will work towards using the cells to treat diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases, and blood disorders.

Stem Cell Pioneer Does a Reality Check (Jun 2005) - Thomson, a developmental biologist and veterinarian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, made history in 1998 when he and fellow researchers derived the first embryonic stem cell lines from frozen human embryos. The breakthrough came after the news that a sheep named Dolly was born as the first cloned mammal — and together, the two announcements hinted at a brave new world of medical possibilities and moral debates. Since then, five of the university's cell lines have been approved for federal funding under the terms of the Bush administration's stem cell compromise of August 2001. Not surprisingly, Thomson believes that President Bush should call off his threat to veto the legislation — and that the federal government should put more money into embryonic stem cell research. Critics point out that embryonic stem cells are not being used in any clinical applications yet, while alternatives such as adult stem cells figure in scores of therapies

Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ Convinced Bush To Ban Embryonic Stem Cell Research (Dec 2007) - Shortly after taking office, President Bush announced a policy allowing federal funding of research only on existing stem cell lines, despite the urging of several of his advisers and the scientific community for expanded funding. Bush has nevertheless remained stubborn, twice vetoing legislation that would have lifted the restrictions. In a new piece in Commentary magazine, Jay Lefkowitz — who advised Bush on stem cells — reveals how the President formulated his 2001 policy. While Bush heard from a variety of groups on both sides of the issue, the turning point appeared to come when Lefkowitz read from Aldous Huxley’s fictional novel, Brave New World, and scared Bush: "A few days later, I brought into the Oval Office my copy of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 anti-utopian novel, and as I read passages aloud imagining a future in which humans would be bred in hatcheries, a chill came over the room"

Bush's Stem Cell Veto: What's Wrong With This Picture? (Jul 2006) - In the first ever veto of his administration, President Bush has killed legislation that would have expanded federal support of stem cell research by making available to scientists new “lines” of such cells that experts generally agree are needed to move forward in finding treatments for spinal cord injury, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and other life threatening diseases.

Scientists Excited Bush Stem Cell Research Policy May Change After Elections (Mar 2008) - Scientists who engage in stem cell research are excited that the policy President Bush has put in place about the practice could be overturned with the election of a new president. See also this related news report

Related Useful Resources

Stem Cell Resources Stem Cell Basics

And some fun - First Lady Laura Bush's Take on Stem Cells

Here's a huge 2001 Time Magazine resource on stem cells

Stem Cell Research home page

Moral relativism is absolutely great

Evolution or Exodus?

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