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OP/ED: Stem Cell Research - A Medical Goldmine or an Ethical Quagmire?

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posted on Apr, 21 2005 @ 06:55 AM
"Stem Cell research". The very mention of the term is rapidly becoming as much an incitement for bitterly divided opinion and an incendiary for heated exchange as the terms "abortion", "euthenasia", and "cloning". As research hours and funds channeled into this relatively young science balloon, it is increasingly becoming much more than a scientific issue. Indeed, it has grown into a social, ethical and even a political one, often at the expense of the facts - a state of affairs not helped by a scientific community that also seems largely divided along ethical lines. In order to make an informed decision regarding my standpoint on the issue, and hopefully cut through some of the hype, I decided to educate myself.

The projected benefits of stem cell research are well documented. Medical scientists forsee the effective treatment of many chronic diseases and conditions, the cures of which have eluded us despite the medical breakthroughs of the 20th century. Already pioneering treatments in repairing damaged organ tissue, stem cell research could one day provide cures for diabetes, Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Dsiease, spinal injury, arthritis, corneal blindness, and even the big 'C'. However, the controversy surrounding the issue is, of course, not concerning the supposed benefits, rather it is regarding the type and source of the stem cells themselves: Adult versus Embryonic. "Ding ding. Round One."

In The Blue Corner...

Embryonic stem cells are controversial by nature, but some argue that the benefits are too great to pass up. Advocates for this research base their support on two principles:

1. Current scientific evidence indicates that the potential medical benefits of adult stem cells may fall short of those of embryonic cells.

2. The use of embryonic cells is a seperate issue from the "right to life" issue. Abortions and destruction of frozen embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization procedures will continue whether the "material" is used for research or not.

And proponents of embryonic cell research are no light-weights either. Eighty Nobel laureates, in a letter to President Bush, called for an increase in U.S. government funding for research and argued the science and the ethics of the issue.

Nobel Laureates' Letter to President Bush -
We the undersigned urge you to support Federal funding for research using human pluripotent [= embryonic] stem cells.
Some have suggested that adult stem cells may be sufficient to pursue all treatments for human disease. It is premature to conclude that adult stem cells have the same potential as embryonic stem cells -- and that potential will almost certainly vary from disease to disease. Current evidence suggests that adult stem cells have markedly restricted differentiation potential. Therefore, for disorders that prove not to be treatable with adult stem cells, impeding human pluripotent stem cell research risks unnecessary delay for millions of patients who may die or endure needless suffering while the effectiveness of adult stem cells is evaluated.
While we recognize the legitimate ethical issues raised by this research, it is important to understand that the cells being used in this research were destined to be discarded in any case. Under these circumstances, it would be tragic to waste this opportunity to pursue the work that could potentially alleviate human suffering. For the past 35 years many of the common human virus vaccines -- such as measles, rubella, hepatitis A, rabies and poliovirus -- have been produced in cells derived from a human fetus to the benefit of tens of millions of Americans. Thus precedent has been established for the use of fetal tissue that would otherwise be discarded.

The Challenger

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However some in the scientific community, including Professor David Prentice of the Indiana University School of Medicine, argue that the public is being misled as to the benefits of adult cells compared to embryonic ones, claiming that adult stem cells have the advantage both scientifically and ethically, and that this particular facet of stem cell research is being starved of funding.

The Truth About Stem Cells
But the number of researchers in this area is still small, as is the amount of grant dollars needed to fund the research. And sadly, embryonic stem cells have been held up as the panacea for disease and a fountain of youth, despite the advantages of adult stem cells both scientifically and ethically. Given that adult stem cells have shown themselves to be scientifically more successful than embryonic stem cells, and ethically palatable, much more needs to be heard and said about adult stem cells, and much more funding needs to go to adult stem-cell research.
One distinct advantage of using our own adult stem cells is that there will be no transplant rejection, since it is our own tissue. Use of human embryonic stem cells will require lifelong use of drugs to prevent rejection of the tissue. Or, the patient will have to be cloned (a second ethical issue!), and that embryo (the patient's twin) sacrificed to obtain the embryonic stem cells for the tissue (essentially creating a human being whose only purpose is to be "harvested").

Prentice also claims that alternative sources for stem cells are being downplayed and ignored.

There are several excellent alternatives to embryos, and they are actually better potential sources of stem cells for numerous reasons. The best sources are from our own organs termed "adult stem cells" or "tissue stem cells." Another excellent source is cord blood; the small amount of blood left in an umbilical cord after it is detached from a newborn is rich in stem cells. In the last two years, we've gone from thinking that we had very few stem cells in our bodies, to recognizing that many (perhaps most) organs maintain a reservoir of these cells.

One of the major advantages of adult cells, often cited by the scientific community, is that they do not carry the cancer-causing risks that embryonic cells do. Embryonic cells, even at their very earliest stage in development, have been shown to cause aggressive cancers when injected into laboratory animals. Unfortunately, the adult stem cell bubble was burst to some extent when, in recent weeks, research revealed that adult cells do indeed become cancerous when allowed to divide many times. The cells have been proven to only be safe only if the number of times they are allowed to divide outside the body is limited.

Old Stem Cells Can Turn Cancerous -
Stem cells grown in culture for a long time probably become cancerous because they start making telomerase, an enzyme that immortalises cells by rejuvenating the "fuse" on chromosomes that normally limits the number of times cells can divide.

Please visit the link provided for the complete story.

Ethically speaking, abortion and destruction of existing embryos is one matter, but research has also shown that human embryonic stem cells - oddly unlike mouse cells - can and will form a tissue called trophoblast in culture. Production of trophoblast tissue is an essential step in the formation of a human embryo, and before Dr. James A. Thomson's 1998 research paper on the subject, human stem cells were thought incapable of producing the tissue outside of the uterus.

Different Strokes for Different Folks
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Permissive policy = various embryonic stem cell derivation techniques including somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), also called research or therapeutic cloning. SCNT is the transfer of a cell nucleus from a somatic or body cell into an egg from which the nucleus has been removed. Countries in this category include the United Kingdom, Belgium, Israel, India, Singapore, China, Japan, South Korea and others. These countries represent a global population of approximately 2.6 billion people.
Flexible policy = derivations from fertility clinic donations only, excluding SCNT, and often under certain restrictions. These countries represent a global population of approximately 800 million people.

The black dots show the locations of some of the leading genome sequencing research centers.

As can be seen from the above map, individual national policy on stem cell research varies across the globe, with Western Europe and North East Asia being the most liberal. Many nations however, see the world's remaining superpower, the United States, as setting the tone for global ethical policy. President Bush's 2001 decision to allow government funding for experiments using existing stem cell stocks was seen as a middle-of-the-road compromise by both supporters and opponents of the research.

World Reacts to U.S. Stem Cell Plan
Britain's Prolife Alliance, a splinter political party, said it was disappointed in Bush's decision "because the issues at stake here are about absolute respect for early human life, not about compromise."
Proponents of the research also considered Bush's announcement a compromise.

"He's made the most cautious thumbs-up to stem cell research that he possibly could. I'm sure Bush has agonized over this, but it's a bit of a non-decision in a way," said Juliet Tizzard, director of the Progress Education Trust, a London-based pro-research group that was involved in shepherding the approval for stem cell research through Parliament earlier this year.

Please visit the link provided for the complete story.

Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church stands against the extraction of stem cells from embryos and abortions.

Stem-cell Research and the Catholic Church -
Catholic leaders, including Pope John Paul II and U.S. bishops, had implored the president to reject such funding. In the end, Bush allowed research funding only for those stem cells that already had been extracted from destroyed embryos. He prohibited further destruction of embryos for stem-cell research.

Stem-cell research in itself is not wrong, but creating and/or destroying human life in order to "mine" stem cells is, according to Church teaching.

When President George W. Bush met with Pope John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo, Italy, on July 23, 2001, the President was surprised that stem-cell research was on the pope's agenda. Yet the pope sees the United States as pivotal in setting moral social policies worldwide.

For me personally, three issues stand out above the rest. It is apparent that:

1. Inadequate funding and resources are being allocated to pursue the adult stem cell line of research.

2. More research needs to be allocated into chemically inhibiting trophoblast formation in embryonic stem cell culture to prevent cells forming human embryos.

3. There exist alternatives to aborted foetuses for sources of embryonic stem cells.

While admittedly a bit of a fence-sitter when it comes to "pro-life/pro-choice" issues, I feel that if stem cell research methods can be developed that do not require human embryos to be destroyed, then that is where all of our efforts and funding should be concentrated.

Related News Links:

Related Discussion Threads:
Dealing with embryos: IVF vs. stem cell research

[edit on 2005/4/21 by wecomeinpeace]

posted on Apr, 21 2005 @ 11:49 AM
I find it odd that this tremedously important medical field is meeting so much resitance. In the future, people will almost certainly look back at this as ludditism and backwardsness.

posted on Apr, 21 2005 @ 12:17 PM
This is the best presentation I have seen on the subject. No WATS (I used them- I'll catch you next month)

The adult stem cell angle usually gets lost or glossed over.

I'm downloading this article and links for a CD (credit given of course) to send to some folks. very well done.

posted on Apr, 22 2005 @ 07:02 AM
Everywhere you look, it's every man and his dog advocating, lobbying and pushing for research funds to be directed into embryonic SCR in stead of adult SCR. Google "2005 funding adult embryonic stem cell research" and see what you come up with.
"Washington Governor Wants Millions for Embryonic Stem Cell Research"
"Congress Asks for Embryonic Stem Cell Research"
"earmarking much of its funding for controversial embryonic stem cell research"
...and so on and so forth.

In an excellent article which clearly outlines the preferential backing enjoyed by embryonic SCR, Dr. Kathy Mitchell of the University of Kansas and Harvard researcher Dr. Denise Faustman speak of 'scientific popularism' and groundless, outright prejudice against adult SCR by those who make funding allocation decisions for the U.S. National Institute of Health.

Miracle cells
Cutting-edge researchers are making unheralded breakthroughs with stem cells from umbilical cords—but have a hard time breaking through the NIH funding wall. "I think people who want embryonic stem cells just don't want [alternatives] to work"

The National Institutes of Health has shunned her grant applications three times. In one grant review, a fellow scientist commented that her stem cells come from tissue inside umbilical cords, not days-old embryos.

"We already have a good source of stem cells," the grant reviewer wrote. "Why do we need another?"

Frequently, the scientists supporting the popular culture are the ones deciding which research projects receive grants from the NIH.

If a research proposal goes against the flow of popular science, it will have a hard time getting through the peer review process, Dr. Faustman says.

With the five-year grant they received from the NIH, Dr. Kurtzberg and her colleagues successfully treated other children with ALD, leukemia, sickle cell anemia, and severe combined immune deficiency, also known as bubble-boy disease. The same year President Bush set rules for federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, the NIH chose not to renew the cord blood transplant grant.

"The NIH said, 'Congratulations, cord blood transplants work. We fund basic research. You are now beyond that. You now need to get funding from somewhere else,'" Mr. Barsh said. There was no money left for Dr. Kurtzberg to do clinical trials, but so much left to discover.

The NIH . . . has funded only 30 projects involving stem cells from umbilical cords. In contrast, it has funded 634 projects involving embryonic stem cells.

Amazingly, embryonic SCR has produced no results and no breakthroughs. All of the breakthroughs in this new science have come from adult SCR and yet, the "obsession" with embryonic SCR mysteriously continues.

Embryonic stem cell research as an obsession
The scientific breakthroughs and the medical therapies have all come from adult stem cells and none as yet have come from embryonic stem cells. Rather than welcoming the results and pursuing support for what works, there are paradoxically increasing demands for the recognition and funding of embryonic SCR.

In the scientific research community, funding is everything. No funding, no research. No research, no results - simple as that. But unfortunately allocation of funding tends to gravitate along the lines of popular trends and public perception, often regardless of the potential for success and seemingly independent of actual results. The chicken and the egg conundrum comes to mind here when one considers the question of which came first: Public perception, or research community bias? ANd if bias does exist, then the next obvious question is why?

posted on Apr, 23 2005 @ 01:34 PM
I really have nothing to add to this thread- I am perplexed as you.

There must be 'something' way, way under the radar on this.

posted on Apr, 23 2005 @ 03:19 PM
Everything is misplaced in this stem cell argument, apparently it is not a big cash cow or someone wants to monopolize and pounce on it at a later time. The central point is that GM foods are carte blanche when their seeds are absolutely contrary to basic principles of life itself. DNA is inserted to modify the very structure by which people, plants, and everything calls itself alive.

DNA is manipulated to create "spider goats," as well as "drugs," and other areas of deep concern via cross pollination factors. People eat this garbage and who knows what is going to happen? Hey your actual DNA could well be modified at what point no one knows. Regarding histone masking, we could see the entire biosphere breaking down into goop with an undetermined number of generations of plantings. Terminator seeds could break out into the general plant population, making the now verdant green into dark brown then desert nothingness.

There are far more questions than answers in this GM foods argument, than there are in say genetic cloning and stem cell research. Imagine the factor of zero outrage for this problem compared with condemnation and vociferous invective about what amounts to creating clones which are not much different from identical twins.

These arguments are transparent, and with elaboration more than ostensibly driven into relevant channels of political, social, and economic debate. The real bottom line is life itself and good health is it not? It is another instance of selective blindness, and deceit in our basic views of reality. Debates are useless without perception, as it is well known "without vision the people perish."

[edit on 23-4-2005 by SkipShipman]

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