Adult vs. Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Family North Carolina MagazineMarch/April
As we anticipate this New Year we see many possible changes in store for our society with the election of a new slate in Congress. One of the more likely early acts of this new Congress is the second attempt to approve legislative funding for embryonic stem cell research. President Bush established policy regarding federal funding of this type of research in August, 2001. At that time he banned the use of federal money for embryo-destructive research for any embryos created after that date. The scientific community’s outcry has reverberated ever since.
Several states (Connecticut, Indiana Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Missouri), led by California’s 3 billion dollar funding initiative for stem cell research, have passed similar legislation, though in smaller amounts. All of these states, trying desperately to keep their scientists in place, have approved some degree of financial support to research institutions to perform this type of research. Congress passed legislation in May, 2006 to re-establish Federal funding for these projects but President Bush vetoed this legislation. With the newly elected, more pro-choice Congress, this legislation will surely be resubmitted early in the new session and the possibility of overriding the President’s veto is more likely.
So why are some making all the fuss about doing research on human embryos anyway? What is to be gained by destroying these smallest and most vulnerable of humans? The premise is that embryonic stem cells derived from these embryos are the fountain of youth sought after by so many in today’s secular society. We are told that these small cells can transform into any cell of the human body and have the potential to heal many of man’s crippling diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and others. In other words, some contend that those standing in the way of this research are keeping us from living forever.
What are Stem Cells?
Somewhere in all of this promise and excitement hides the truth and we must find it.
Stem cellsso named because, as the stems of a plant give rise to branches, leaves and fruitthese cells by progressive division and change are the origin of all cells in the human body. Science tells us that these cells probably occur first at about the 5th day of embryonic development and comprise the cells of the inner cell mass of the young embryo.
This regionThe inner cell mass region of the embryoforms all of the tissues and organs of the human fetus. These cells differentiate (change) into more advanced cells as they divide and eventually become adult stem cells in the fully developed fetus. They have the unique property of being able to continually divide and give rise to new cells in the developing embryo and fetus but change function to become healing cells for dying or damaged cells in the fully developed person. Because of this time-related change in function, there are two types of stem cellsembryonic, which are found in the first week of life, and adultthose found after the fetus has developed. The latter type would include bone marrow stem cells and those present in umbilical cord blood and placental tissues.
For several decades we have been using adult stem cells to treat many diseases in the form of bone marrow transplants. In fact, there are currently almost 1200 clinical trials using this adult type of stem cell in treating human disease and over 70 diseases have either been cured or aided with the use of these cells.
But this is where the controversy begins. We are told that the best chance of curing many of these disabling diseases lies not with adult stem cells but with the embryonic ones. Some are trying to convince us that because the embryonic stem cells can change into any of the over 200 cell types in the human body, they are far superior to the adult forms which they claim can only change into a limited number of cell types.
There is some truth here but it is a half-truth. Adult stem cells are limited in their potential to transform into different cell types, but this has not prevented their effective use in treating many diseases. In fact their stability once given to patients is one of the main reasons why they are safe to use in humans right now. The fact that embryonic stem cells are so active in their ability to transform is the precise reason why they haven’t been safely applied to humans at this point in time. In animals treated with these cells, tumors have frequently developed because of the wild nature of their growth and transformation. This problem has not been solved in spite of 20 years of animal research with embryonic stem cells.
In the past 5 years several sources of adult stem cells have been shown to transform into a number of different cell types if placed in the right laboratory environment.
Once so transformed, they can be given to a patient to treat a deficiency of that particular cell type.
Another problem with using embryonic stem cells is immune-rejection. Since these cells come from another unique individual (a destroyed embryo), they contain DNA that is not recognized as self by the recipient. This triggers an immune response or rejection of the foreign cells. This means that a person receiving these foreign cells would likely need life-long immune suppression similar to a patient receiving a transplanted organ. This immune suppression carries many risks including infection and cancer.
On the other hand, an adult stem cell can be taken from the very patient that is being treated, transformed in the laboratory to the needed cell type and given back to the patient. Since this cell contains his DNA, no rejection occurs.
All of this leads us to the fact that to obtain embryonic stem cells that will match the patientcloning must be performed. Cloning involves removing the nucleus (DNA) from a donor egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus taken from a cell from the patient (such as a skin cell).
In doing this one has now created an embryo which if implanted into a mother’s womb would produce a living human. With a small electric stimulus the newly formed embryo begins to divide in the laboratory. As with embryonic stem cells taken from the frozen embryos “left over” in the In Vitro Fertilization lab, both types of embryos will have to be destroyed to obtain their stem cells. This ethical dilemma has caused many to reject the use of embryonic stem cells for research even if potential exists to cure disease.
Many believe that human life is a continuum that begins at fertilization and ends with natural death. To assign a time in this continuum when life has less worth than other times, is not a judgment that can be made by the creature.
To overcome these ethical hurdles, proponents of this embryo-destructive research have tried to lull the public into a confused state by changing scientific definitions. For example, they don’t use the words embryo and cloning because these words make people feel uncomfortable. They have replaced the word embryo with a “ball of cells” and the word cloning with Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT). The latter is the method of transferring the nucleus from the patient’s cell to the egg cell described above. It is the exact technique used to create Dolly the sheep.
True, SCNT is the scientific name for cloning but it certainly sounds more appealing than cloning, and easier for our conscience.
Recently, legislation was passed in Missouri by public referendum allowing funding of embryonic stem cell research and cloning and the wording of the referendum began with the words “We will not allow human cloning.” Instead, the later wording in the referendum disguised the process of cloning as SCNT. This confused and fooled many voters into thinking that cloning was not being funded. The referendum’s definition of human cloning was implanting the cloned embryo into a woman’s womb and bringing it to term. The cloned embryo’s fate in the funded referendum was in fact its destruction to produce embryonic stem cellssomething the public was led to believe was not taking place.
Similar legislation will likely appear soon before the North Carolina legislature. Though the amounts of proposed state funds may be small compared to other states, it would open the door to using NC taxpayer’s funds to pay for research that has not helped one human being to date. The prospect of using embryonic stem cells for therapies in humans is years, maybe decades away, if in fact it is realized at all.
Instead we should be continuing to fund adult stem cell research and therapies which do not promote ethically contentious embryo-destruction. The use of adult stem cells has a proven track record and is helping large numbers of patients today. Given the value of life, and the proven track record of success with adult stem-cell research, our state could truly demonstrate that it cherishes life by rejecting the public funding of embryonic stem-cell research while encouraging adult stem-cell research.
Jacques Mistrot, M.D. is an Associate at the Westchester Institute For Ethics and the Human Person. Artwork adapted and provided by the author.
Copyright © 2007. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.