Saturday, November 8, 2008

Stem Cell Research

Stem Cells are smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, but they are the object of political, economic, scientific, religious and philosophical discussion. Stem cell research holds great promise in treating diseases that affect millions of people in the world today. It should continue and be encouraged, but the discussion begins to get heated when you ask how it should continue and what form of encouragement is desired. They say the devil is in the details, and stem cell research is no exception. The use of embryonic cells, the cost, political control of stem cell lines, and therapeutic cloning are issues that create conflict. In the end, one is faced with the timeless question: Do the ends justify the means? The inability of interest groups to compromise and build upon common ground concerning stem cell research is an obstacle to progress toward the development of life-saving treatment for millions.

“All cells in the human body ultimately descend from stem cells, through the processes of mitosis and differentiation.” (Sheir, Butler, and Lewis 97) About thirty hours following fertilization, the egg begins the process of mitosis and divides into two stem cells. This mitosis process continues so quickly that the stem cells do not have time to grow and the cells get smaller and smaller. These totipotent stem cells are “totally potent" or totally capable of forming all cells of the body, and if allowed to grow in a proper environment each single cell would develop into a human being. (qtd. In United States). Approximately a week after fertilization, a hollow ball of stem cells begins implanting in the womb and the primary germ layer of the primordial embryo is formed. The middle layer (mesoderm) contains pluripotent stem cells. Each cell could not develop into a human being because pluripotent stem cells are more "committed" than totipotent stem cells. The pluripotent cells specialize into the blood, bone, nerve, muscle and skin cells that make up the organs and systems of the body. Stem cells of developed humans (adult stem cells) are multipotent and can develop into more than one cell type.

Stem cells show tremendous possibilities for the future of medicine. They are self-renewing meaning that they can continually duplicate themselves. They can be used to produce tissues that would not be rejected.
“Pluripotent stem cells stimulated to develop into specialized cells offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissue to treat a myriad of diseases, conditions and disabilities including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. There is almost no realm of medicine that might not be touched by this innovation.” (qtd. in United States)
Further research is necessary in order for scientists to understand the events that happen on a cellular level to cause differentiation. One big piece of the puzzle that is missing is the knowledge of how to manipulate specific changes in the stem cells. “We know that turning genes on and off is central to this process, but we do not know much about these "decision-making" genes or what turns them on or off.” (qtd. in United States) Until these mysteries are solved, these possibilities are just dreams. Embryonic stem cells are needed in order to begin to find the answers because of their totipotent and pluripotent characteristics.

The ethical questions that arise because of the use of embryonic cells have been a major obstacle. Various religious groups and pro-life activists take issue with their use, because they view the embryo that is destroyed in the process of harvesting the stem cells as a human life. The destruction of the embryo, even though the embryo was “leftover” from in-vitro fertilization treatments, is viewed as murder of an innocent life. They even protest the use of stem cells from embryos that have stopped developing naturally. They argue that there is no way to prove that the development would have ceased outside the lab environment, so lab conditions could have halted their growth. (Associated Press) The next logical step for stem cells research to take, after stem cell “switches” have been found, is called somatic cell nuclear transfer or therapeutic cloning. This procedure would enable scientists to use stem cells to engineer organs and tissues for transplantation that would not have immune rejection complications. The ethical issue becomes whether life should be allowed to develop in order to produce parts. The biggest ethical dilemma to face with this issue is whether the ends justify the means – should “unwanted” potential life be sacrificed in order to provide the cells necessary to understand a process that will end or reduce the suffering of millions. Is the gain worth the cost?

Possibilities do exists that can reduce or remove some ethical issues. One is the replication of existing stem cell lines. Embryonic stem cells can reproduce quickly and indefinitely without losing any of their pluripotent qualities, unlike adult stem cells that lose it over time. While this ensures an inexhaustible supply of cells, it still does not resolve the objection to the destruction of the embryo. Another option is to use donated embryonic cells from parents. If a pregnancy is terminated the cells could be harvested; or parents using in-vitro fertilization could donate their unused embryos “to scientific research” for the development of new lines. This is viewed by most as the moral equivalent of donating organs when someone dies.

Finally, there is the issue of the cost of all of this research. Currently in the United States there are federal prohibitions and restrictions in place regarding stem cell research. In 2004, California passed legislation appropriating billions of tax payer dollars to fund this research and avoid the federal red tape ever-present with government grants. The states of Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, and New Jersey have also passed laws offering state-level financial support, but there is concern that it will not be enough. Some philanthropists and corporations have stepped forward to help fund research over the past five years. They bring the benefit of freedom from government regulation and political baggage. All of this support in dollars pales in comparison to the funding ability of the National Institute of Health (NYU 5), which continues to reduce their financial commitment.The unanswered questions of this multi-faceted issue will never disappear completely and no one is likely to have all the decisions fall in their favor. The discussion will continue, but iron wills fixed on agendas should not let much needed progress in this research stagnate. (Works Cited available on request)

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