Stem Cell Research

Just as there are innovator (brand name) drugs and generics, there are also human cells that are specific and some that are generic. A stem cell is one of those “generic” cells. It can make copies of itself indefinitely. In addition, a stem cell has the ability to produce specialized cells for various tissues in the body, including heart muscle, brain, and liver. There are two basic types of stem cells: embryonic and adult. The National Institute of Health (www.nih.gov) provides a solid primer on understanding stem cells. Adult stem cells are found throughout the body. They are undifferentiated cells whose function is to maintain and repair the tissues in the area where they're located. Embryonic stem cells derive from the fetus.

Why Are Stem Cells Such a Big Deal?

With all the billions of cells in your body, it's difficult to understand how you might benefit from adding some more to the mix. It's not the same as whipping up a batch of brownies and deciding to toss in a handful of walnuts at the end. Stem cells do some pretty amazing things:

  • They can be used to replace diseased or destroyed tissue.

  • They can be test agents for experimental drugs.

  • They can help geneticists learn how cells are affected in the early stages of specific diseases.

Fact

Gregor Mendel is known as the father of modern genetics. He was an Austrian physicist and also a monk. Mendel used pea plants as his research medium, and he went though a whole lot of pea plants before he proved that the inheritance of certain traits follows particular laws of heredity. He also discovered the laws of dominant and recessive genes.

Give Me a “For Instance”

Okay. Here's one. Suppose you've been in an accident in which you suffered severe burns. Stem cells could be grown as skin tissue and then transferred to your burns. You would grow new skin without having to undergo painful skin grafts. In cases where someone is burned over massive portions of the body, grafting may not even be possible. Infection, disfigurement, and the real possibility of death become concerns. Stem cells, in this case, could save a life.

That's Good, But Is That All?

No. Spinal cord injury patients could walk again. That's the hope of researchers, who look to the day when stem cells could be used to re-grow spinal cord tissue, restore nerve function, and reverse paralysis. The possibilities go on and on. Parkinson's disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke — all of these conditions and more, may one day be cured by stem cells. Then, there's the genetic aspect of stem cell research. Here's where scientists can learn about the genetic basis of numerous medical conditions, including depression. This is where the cure might arise. Finally, drug trials could be speeded up, if researchers can use stem cells as the first-wave guinea pigs. By testing the drug on the actual tissue the drug is targeting, much time will be saved — and that means more lives saved, as well.

So, What's the Fuss All About?

It's more than a fuss. This is a religious, philosophical, and scientific discussion of significant proportions. Some people believe that human life begins at conception — that from the moment sperm and egg join up, a baby has come into being. Some people believe that the fertilized egg is a potential human life. Those who hold the latter view share two different perspectives on it. One perspective holds that since this is a potential human being, everything should be done to insure its well-being and afford it all the protections of a human. The other viewpoint is that many factors and conditions must come together before the fertilized egg realizes its potential. Therefore, potentiality doesn't equal actuality.

Why This Matters

Traditionally, stem cells have been harvested from aborted human fetuses. This is where the controversy arises. For those who hold that life begins at conception, abortion is murder. For those who believe that the fertilized egg is a potential human being, with all the rights of a human, using an aborted fetus for cloning stem cells is abhorrent. For those who believe in the conditional potentiality of the fetus, harvesting the stem cells is logical, since the fetus would not develop to maturity, in any regard. Those are the positions, and they're as firm as if they'd been carved into granite. This can be frustrating for those who are looking to stem cells to provide the keys to unlocking the secrets of depression.

The Politics of It All

Stem cell research is a political hot potato. In September 2006, President George W. Bush vetoed a bill to authorize stem cell research and instead encouraged researchers to study stem cells gathered from umbilical cords and adult stem cells rather than pursue research with aborted fetuses. There are twelve currently existing sources of embryonic stem cells in the United States, and access to these has not been prohibited by the government. In Europe, however, research is moving ahead, unfettered by the constraints imposed by the government in the United States. In 2003, the European Parliament approved the use of stem cell research on aborted human embryos. Indeed, this may be where the breakthrough in curing depression originates.

The Consequences of the Politics

At the moment, stem cell research in the United States is continuing as it has — limited, but exploring sources other than aborted fetuses for stem cells, while scientists wait to see if a change in political administration in the forthcoming election will change the current law. In Europe, however, the research is steaming full speed ahead. Currently, EuroStemCell and ESTOOLs are the two major European-funded stem cell research groups and this consortium is calling for uniform regulations throughout Europe (www.eurostemcell.org).

Essential

The United States isn't the only country putting on the brakes for embryonic stem cell research. Germany and Italy currently have restrictions on stem cell research. Germany's horrific experiments on human subjects during World War II still haunts Germany today. As a result, the government is reluctant to allow unrestricted research freedom to the scientific community. Italy, home to the Roman Catholic Church, is also reluctant to ease restrictions on stem cell research — research that the Church condemns.

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