FILED IN: Parenting

Stem cell research — what do you know about it?

Stem cell research is perhaps second only to abortion as the most widely-discussed political topic pertaining to the sanctity of human life. While neither of these issues will likely be at the forefront of the 2008 presidential campaign, stem cell research will certainly figure into the candidates’ platforms.

First, some essential background on stem cells and how and why they are being used for research purposes:

What are stem cells and how do they differ from other human cells?

“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.”

How are scientists using stem cells in research?

“Studying stem cells will 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 due to 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.

Another potential application of stem cells is making cells and tissues for medical therapies. Today, donated organs and tissues are often used to replace those that are diseased or destroyed. Unfortunately, the number of people needing a transplant far exceeds the number of organs available for transplantation. Pluripotent stem cells offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat a myriad of diseases, conditions, and disabilities including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.”

The debate comes into play due to research conducted using human embryonic stem cells – taken from human embryos which will then be discarded.  Hence, the objection that harm is being done to potential human life.

Why use human embryonic stem cells instead of adult stem cells?  Human embryonic stem cells are believed to be pluripotent – “able to give rise to cells found in all tissues of the embryo – whereas adult stem cells that could give rise to all cell and tissue types have not yet been found. Adult stem cells are often present in only minute quantities and can therefore be difficult to isolate and purify…Finally, adult stem cells may contain more DNA abnormalities—caused by sunlight, toxins, and errors in making more DNA copies during the course of a lifetime. These potential weaknesses might limit the usefulness of adult stem cells.”

How has stem cell research figured into political discussions under the current administration?

On August 9th, 2001, President George W. Bush announced that federal funds may be awarded for research using human embryonic stem cells if the following criteria are met:

  1. The derivation process (which begins with the destruction of the embryo) was initiated prior to 9:00 P.M. EDT on August 9, 2001.
  2. The stem cells must have been derived from an embryo that was created for reproductive purposes and was no longer needed.
  3. Informed consent must have been obtained for the donation of the embryo and that donation must not have involved financial inducements.

The National Institutes of Health, among other federally-funded research organizations, conducts stem cell research according to these guidelines.  But in 2005, H.R. 810 was drafted in an effort to expand the above criteria:

“Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005 – Amends the Public Health Service Act to require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct and support research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells, regardless of the date on which the stem cells were derived from a human embryo, provided such embryos: (1) have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics; (2) were created for the purposes of fertility treatment; (3) were in excess of the needs of the individuals seeking such treatment and would never be implanted in a woman and would otherwise be discarded (as determined in consultation with the individuals seeking fertility treatment); and (4) were donated by such individuals with written informed consent and without any financial or other inducements.”

While H.R. 810 was passed by both houses of Congress, President Bush vetoed it – the first veto of his presidency – saying the bill “crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect.”

The objections to human embryonic stem cell research are primarily ethical in nature.  The International Society for Stem Cell Research provides an excellent summary of the dilemma:

“In the case of embryonic stem cell research, the end that scientists hope to achieve is the relief of human suffering. That this is a humanitarian and worthy end is not in dispute. The controversy is about the means, namely, the consumption of donated embryos. More particularly, embryonic stem cell research and therapy would use donated embryos that, by virtue of donor instructions, will never enter a uterus. Is it permissible to use those means to that end? Ancient religious texts provide little guidance. The ancients did not understand embryology, did not imagine that scientists might create and nurture what we now understand as embryos in the laboratory. Nor can we get an answer from laboratory experiments. There is no test for whether an embryo is a person. Instead we are left to our own devices, to our own moral reasoning.”

Unfortunately, the conclusions here are that there are no definite, fact-based, scientifically objective conclusions.  Regardless of what knowledge we currently possess – both with respect to the status of an embryo or fetus and with respect to the potential gains of stem cell research – personal moral beliefs will continue to be a factor in each individual’s (and each candidate’s) stance.  The key is to understand the scientific facts and reconcile those with your personal beliefs – and then vote accordingly.

For more information on stem cell research, please refer to the comprehensive list of online resources at the National Institutes of Health website.