Stem Cell Research: Accomplishments and Debate

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Stewart Sell, a senior scientist at Ordway Cancer Research Institute, said, “In the beginning there is the stem cell; it is the origin of an organism’s life. It is a single cell that can give rise to progeny that differentiate into any of the specialized cells of embryonic or adult tissues.” This is how all life begins. A single cell can create a complex system of organs, tissues, muscles and bones. If one cell can effectively create all these vital parts of our bodies, what can these cells do for people living with damaging diseases and cancers? If it can be so beneficial to our human existence, why is it such a controversial topic in our society? Are there ways to ethically use these cells without the input of religion or politics, or must this topic be discussed and considered with these values in mind? I believe it is necessary to state before I begin that I am pro-choice. I will be discussing the importance of this stance, as well as inputting my views on this issue and the controversy associated with it throughout this paper.

There is a need for stem cell research because stem cells offer new potentials for treating diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and many others. I believe that by learning to effectively use both adult stem cells (ASC’s) and embryonic stem cells (ESC’s), we can begin to lessen these life-threatening diseases that affect the people we love every day. Think about what a world without debilitating diseases would be like. Since stem cells are able to divide and renew themselves, they can be used to essentially “grow” a new heart for a person with heart disease. Imagine what it would be like to never have the fear of serious illness or premature death.

I believe that now more than ever, there is an increased need for research regarding these cells. There is a need to bring this issue to the forefront and inform the public about the pros and cons of moving forward in the stem cell research field. This study will be useful to enlighten those who may not know a lot about stem cell research. It will bring religion, politics and ethics into consideration and show how these affect one’s stance on this issue. Through this essay I hope to teach the public about the benefits and also the drawbacks associated with this issue. There is a lot of jargon used in this area of research pertaining to where the stem cells come from as well as how they are obtained. I will try to keep it as jargon-free as possible while going into as much detail as I can. I will discuss the dangers and benefits of stem cell research through literature from academic journals, government websites as well as scientific articles.

In the world of stem cells, there are many beneficial applications of stem cells in areas such as tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, cell therapy, and gene therapy. Stem cells are able to renew themselves and produce specific characteristics and functions based on their potential and source. Human stem cells include totipotent embryonic cells (cells that appear in the early stages of embryonic development) which has the ability of becoming a complete organism, pluripotent embryonic cells (cells that can become into any type of cell other than embryonic structures, such as the umbilical cord and placenta), multipotent adult cells (cells that can become platelets, red blood cells or white blood cells), and unipotent cells (cells that only become a specific single cell). Multipotent stem cells have a greater potential for success and differentiation potential. Within these four types of human stem cells there are thousands of different types of cells in our bodies that can differentiate into specific tissues, organs or vascular systems. Currently, thirteen percent of ESC’s, two percent of Fetal Stem Cells, ten percent of Umbilical cord stem cells, and seventy-five percent of adult stem cells are used in cell therapy procedures (Liars 2010).

These cells can help to treat Lou Gehrig disease, deaminase deficiency,immunodeficiency, Shwachman-Bodian-Diamond syndrome, Gaucher disease,Muscular dystrophy, Parkinson and Huntington disease, diabetes mellitus, lymphoma,leukemia, immunodeficiency, congenital metabolic defects, and down syndrome. Stem Cells have the potential to benefit 70 million patients with cardiovascular disease, 50 million with autoimmune diseases, 18 million with diabetes, 10 million with cancer, 4.5million with Alzheimer’s disease, 1 million with Parkinson’s disease, 1.1 million with burns and wounds and 0.15 million with medullary lesions.(Liras 2010). With the potential to “cure” almost all human diseases from our world by replacing defective or dead cells with normal or genetically modified normal cells (Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, iPSC’s) and benefit millions of people, why is there so much controversy over this research?

Stem cells can be classified in two forms before they are categorized into totipotent, unipotent, multipotent, or pluripotent cells. These forms are human adult stem cells and human embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells tend to be more ethically,socially, religiously and legally acceptable than embryonic stem cells since they are not derived from the embryo after fertilization either in the uterus or in a lab setting (mostly from In vitro Fertilization). They also are thought to be less likely to initiate rejection after transplantation. In the Journal of Law, Science and Innovation, John A. Robertson describes the fact that people who are pro-life tend to think of stem cell research as the destruction of embryos, the same as abortion. These people oppose destroying embryos, even if they will be discarded in the future because they are no longer wanted by the couples who created them to treat infertility. I’d like to mention that not all people who choose to have a religious or political stance as pro-life view cell research this way,there are inconsistencies. Robertson doesn’t input his view on this issue, but I see an issue with these values.

There are over 463,000 children in foster care in the United States alone and of that number 47 percent live in non-relative foster family homes, 24 percent in relative foster homes, 10 percent in institutions, 6 percent in group homes, 4 percent in pre-adoptive homes, 5 percent on trial home visits, 2 percent had run away and 1 percent in supervised independent living (AFCARS 2010). If a human life at the cellular level is so vitally important to a person’s ethical, religious and political beliefs, why don’t these children matter to them? These children come into foster care under very different and sometimes difficult circumstances but regardless, no child deserves to be abandoned by their parents. This means that 926,000 people, consciously or not, made the decision to give up their children. To draw a parallel between these numbers and ESC’s, as many as 400,000 embryos sit frozen in storage so long that they become fragile and unusable and disposed of. However, 95% of the fertility clinics surveyed said they would call the creator of the embryo before throwing it away and if the owner couldn’t be reached, the embryo would continue to sit in the freezer (Gurmankin 2004).

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In the Impact article written by Dr. Kelly Hollowell (who has a Ph.D. in Molecular And Cellular Pharmacology) decides to ignore the fact that a fertility clinics worldwide throw out more than 400,000 embryos per year and takes a conservative stance on the issue. She says, “We do not consider it appropriate to take organs for dying patients or prisoners on death row before they have died in order to increase someone else’s chances for healing or cure. Neither, then, should we consider any embryos “spare” so that we may destroy them for their stem cells.” I don’t believe this is a logical way of thinking about scientific research nor do I believe that the parallel that she has attempted to draw between embryos and a death row inmate is a good one. By bringing death row into the picture, it has simultaneously added one entirely different controversial topic to the situation. Whether the stance is pro-life, pro-choice, for stem cell research, or against stem cell research, I think we can all acknowledge the fact that these unused embryos should be put to use before they have to been thrown away.

I strongly believe that religion plays a big part in the decision of whether to support or oppose embryonic stem cell research. Chances are when someone with a religious view opposing abortion is asked about stem cell research, they will oppose this as well. However, as I said before, this is not always true. Senators John McCain and Orrin Hatch are pro-life but do not recognize the early embryo (for the sake of research)in the same context as they do a fetus (Robertson 2010). There are many different views on this issue and when that happens, it becomes a very controversial subject.The difference between the importance of research and reproduction, the purpose for which the embryos have been created, is a heated issue in federal funding policy creation as well as federal law making.

It is clearly evident that making laws and creating funding for embryonic stem cell research can become messy because so many people have different ethical and religious values. Presidents in the past have cut funding based on their beliefs by allowing embryonic stem cell research on cells taken prior to 2001 but no new cells. President Bush, during his time in office, said, “I also believe human life is a sacred gift from our Creator. I worry about a culture that devalues life, and believe as your President I have an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world. And while were all hopeful about the potential of this research, no one can be certain that the science will live up to the hope it has generated…I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life and death decision has already been made.” (Bush 2001).

This was lifted in March of 2009 by President Obama saying, “When it comes to stem cell research…our government has forced…a false choice between sound science and moral values. In this case… the two are not inconsistent. As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly…The majority of Americans – from across the political spectrum, and of all backgrounds and beliefs – have come to consensus that we should pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided.” President Obama approved $21 million dollars for funding Stem Cell Research as well as the release of 40 new lines of embryonic stem cells. Along with this, there are hundreds of ESCs created from leftover embryos since 2001 are used to continue research this field (Robertson 2010). These advances are relatively small, but still an advance in a controversial field of research where the line between religion and research is blurred.

In the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, David E. Winickoff begins to bring the publicity of stem cell research in California to the forefront. He explains that in November 2004 there was an approval of funding for the California Stem Cell Research And Cures Initiative. This marked a sea of change in the future research and funding for the future of stem cell research. It is mentioned that this will have a strong influence on how stem cell research are regulated nationwide. California’s decision will help to fuel a nationwide spark to make stem cell research available in the clinical level. This is different from the article written by Robertson because it focuses more on the funding aspect. The US Food and Drug Administration have already approved the first clinical trial of products derived from human embryonic stem cells in acute spinal cord injuries.They have also began creating a regulatory system for cell and tissue based products by the “prevention of use of contaminated tissues or cells (such as AIDS or hepatitis),prevention of inadequate handling or processing that may damage or contaminate those tissues or cell, and clinical safety of all tissues or cells that may be processed, used four functions other than normal functions, combined with components other than tissues, orused for metabolic purposes.” (Liars 2010). For now, the federal debate of embryonic stem cell research has been removed from politics but needless to say, the fight isn’t over (Robertson 2010).

The successes of Stem Cell Research are increasing as more funding becomes available. In one case, the temporomandibular joint in the jaw was recreated for people who have lost it through disease or injury. A Biomedical Engineer at Columbia University created it using stem cells as seen in a video in my PowerPoint. Another amazing account is the story of a young boy suffering from Sickle Cell Anemia. He had great pain because of this disease until he was treated with his younger brother’s umbilical cord blood. It was a perfect match for what he needed and when he received treatments of it his cells began to repair themselves and his red blood count became normal. These are just two success stories of the thousands in the world that have been successfully treated using stem cell therapy.

One of many remaining issues in this field is the price of stem cell therapy. Currently, a cell therapy treatment may cost more than $40,000 due to the individuality of each drug product produced for each specific case. This cost includes: multiple surgical procedures, maintenance of strict sterile conditions, specific training for staff and overall technical and staff support (Liars 2010). The revenue created by the U.S. market for stem cell research is huge. In 2007 it produced $110 million dollars and expected to reach an estimated $423.1 million by the end of 2012. Almost 98% of this is blood and immune system treatments. Other areas of treatment account for $1 billion in 2010 (Edwards 2008). Studying stem cells will help the world understand how they transform into the specialized cells that make up what we are. Some of the most serious medical conditions are caused by issues in the creation process after fertilization in these cells. Although embryonic stem cell research still has major obstacles to overcome to help people at a clinical level, we are moving in the right direction by allowing the research to continue. A better understanding of normal cell development will allow the correction of these errors that cause the most serious medical conditions (NIH 2000). I believe that no matter the religious, political, or ethical view, stem cell research should be viewed as positive advance in regenerative medicine that may one day re-shape the medical industry as we know it. Wherever there is a place for an opinion, there is a place for debate and that may never change. Hopefully one day we can put our personal views aside and come together for the welfare of humanity and the future of our medical world.

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