Stem Cell Research: Close to Home


Since 1998, when researchers discovered that stem cells extracted from embryonic tissue could regenerate to become any type of cell, the nation has stood sharply divided on the morality of such research. When stem cells are taken from an embryo, the embryo loses its viability. The embryo cannot become implanted into a womb or develop into a fetus. To knowingly damage an embryo in order to remove stem cells is, for some, equal to destroying human life. For others, who see great promise in what stem cells might do to cure illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease; it is immoral not to move forward with such research. (2)

tenhoeve a 1You have to understand what stem cells are. Called "master" cells or "a sort of internal repair system," these remarkable-yet-unspecialized cells are able to divide, seemingly without limits, to help mend or replenish other living cells. These cells are the foundation of the entire human body, or literally the body's building blocks.(2)

By studying these cells and how they develop, researchers are closing in on a better understanding of how our bodies grow and mature, and how diseases and other abnormalities take root. The research work that began with mouse embryos in the early 1980s eventually helped scientists devise a way to isolate stem cells from human embryos by the late 1990s.(1)

Researchers have also recently found stem cells in amniotic fluid taken from pregnant women during amniocentesis, a fairly routine procedure used to determine potential complications, such as Down syndrome.(1)

However, recent research has indicated that adult stem cells, once thought to be more limited in their capabilities, are actually much more versatile than originally believed. Though not as "pure" as embryonic stem cells, due to environmental conditions that exist in the real world -- ranging from air pollution to food impurities -- adult stem cells are nonetheless garnering attention, if only because they don't incite the same ethical debate as embryonic stem cells.(1)

            Embryonic stem cells, they are one of the well-known stem cells, as their name suggests, are derived from embryos. Most embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro—in an in vitro fertilization clinic—and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman's body.(1)

             An adult stem cell is thought to be an undifferentiated cell, found among differentiated cells in a tissue or organ that can renew itself and can differentiate to yield some or all of the major specialized cell types of the tissue or organ. The primary roles of adult stem cells in a living organism are to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found. Scientists also use the term somatic stem cell instead of adult stem cell, where somatic refers to cells of the body (not the germ cells, sperm or eggs). Unlike embryonic stem cells, which are defined by their origin. The origin of adult stem cells in some mature tissues is still under investigation.(1)

What can stem cells do for us? We don’t know, exactly. We do know, however, that because stem cells are undifferentiated, (they aren’t committed to becoming a liver cell, say, or a blood cell), scientists may be able to prompt them into becoming whatever type of cell is needed. The cells may also be able to replace damaged or sick cells in a patient with an injury or degenerative disease.(3)

Where are scientists getting these cells? Until very recently, the vast majority of stem cells used in research came from discarded (or excess) embryos stored at in-vitro fertilization clinics. If potential parents decide against having more children, scientists working with stem cells might ask them to consider donating the unneeded embryos to research.(3)

tenhoeve a 2In the most controversial method, scientists can also pull stem cells from aborted fetuses, first asking for signed consent from a patient who had previously (and independently) decided to terminate her pregnancy. This is the procedure most often highlighted by pro-life activists who oppose supporting stem cell research. (4)

As opponents of stem cell research are quick to point out, there are other, slightly less controversial means of culling the precious cells. Unfortunately, none of those methods seems to yield stem cells with the same vitality and versatility as those taken from embryos. (4)

Stem cells can be used for good purposes and bad. For people that suffer from Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease they would do anything for a cure, and the cure happens to be stem cells. The question of whether to pursue stem cell research rests in a larger context of questions about nascent human life and the imperatives of scientific research. (4)

tenhoeve a 3For me the subject about stem cells touches me somewhere deep. My best friend had to have a stem cell put into her heart to save her life.  Without stem cells she wouldn’t be alive today. I think that stem cell research should be pursued in order to save people’s lives. I also believe that stem cells should be for medical purposes only. (2)

An executive order paves the way for Congress to pass legislation that outlines policy guidelines to ensure that all stem cell research—embryonic and any other stem cell research—is carried out with the highest ethical standards. The legislation should provide broad, principled ethical standards so that the science itself can evolve in the direction that experimentation and serendipity takes it, alongside easily adapted regulations governing the research, based on the broad ethical standards approved by Congress. Specifically, the legislation should charge the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human Services with the duty to update at regular intervals its regulations for embryonic stem cell research in light of new science. (5)

Opponents of human embryonic stem cell research often champion human adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells as suitable alternatives to embryonic stem cells. Yet these approaches cannot be successful without research on human embryonic stem cells. The New York State Stem Cell Foundation reported in July 2008 that its chief scientific officer, Kevin Eggan, produced adult stem cell lines from patients with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Yet Eggan said he will still continue his work on human embryonic stem cell research because, “we couldn’t possibly be where we are now without first doing extensive work with human embryonic stem cells … they remain the stem cell gold standard” against which all cells brought forth as alternatives must be measured.(5)

I believe that the evidence shown above proves that stem cells will be useful for people with disease such as Parkinson disease. We should continue to study stem cells. The more they are studied the more they tell us about how our body functions in normal and diseased states, showing amazing potential in a therapeutic sense. (4)

 In the US, 2009 and 2010 saw the first use of human embryonic stem cells in clinical trials, but they were turned into neural support cells before they were implanted in spinal cord injury patients. This research was performed on animal models first to ensure its safety, and stands as a landmark in stem cell therapy. Currently, this is largely how such therapies are developing; taking an embryonic stem cell and turning it into a more committed cell type that can then be implanted and can help cure diseases.  (4)

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