STEM CELL RESEARCH - All sides to the dispute.
Thu Oct 26, 2006 03:10

First Hour: 'Historian of the Future' Charles Ostman shares an update on stem cell research.

STEM CELL RESEARCH - All sides to the dispute.


A stem cell is a primitive type of cell that can be coaxed into developing into most of the 220 types of cells found in the human body (e.g. blood cells, heart cells, brain cells, etc). Some researchers regard them as offering the greatest potential for the alleviation of human suffering since the development of antibiotics. Over 100 million Americans and two billion other humans worldwide suffer from diseases that may eventually be treated more effectively with stem cells or even cured. These include heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

Stem cells can be extracted from very young human embryos -- typically from surplus frozen embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures at fertility clinics. A couple undergoing IVF is faced with four alternatives for their 16 or so surplus embryos:
Have them discarded.
Donate the embryos to another infertile couple in what is sometimes called "embryo adoption.".
Donate the embryos for research
Have the embryos preserved at very low temperatures.

There are very few parents willing to give their embryos to another couple for a variety of emotional reasons. There are very few couples willing to receive them for emotional reasons and because thawed embryos have such a low chance of starting a pregnancy. Preservation can be expensive. So most ask that they be discarded.

There are currently hundreds of thousands of surplus embryos in storage. One source estimated that there were 400,000 stored embryos by mid-2003. 4 However, a minority of pro-lifers and a majority of pro-life organizations object to the use of embryos in research. They feel that a few-days-old embryo is a human person. Extracting its stem cells kills the embryo -- an act that they consider to be murder. Stem cells can now be grown in the laboratory, so (in a pinch) some research can be done using existing stem cells. No further harvesting needs to be made from embryos. However, existing stem cell lines are gradually degrading and will soon be useless for research.

Stem cells can also be extracted from adult tissue, without harm to the subject. Unfortunately, they are difficult to remove and are severely limited in quantity. There has been a consensus among researchers that adult stem cells are limited in usefulness -- that they can be used to produce only a few of the 220 types of cells in the human body. However, some evidence is emerging that indicates that adult cells may be more flexible than has previously been believed.

Research using embryo stem cells had been authorized in Britain, but was initially halted in the U.S. by President George W. Bush. He decided on 2001-AUG-9 to allow research to resume in government labs, but restricted researchers to use only 72 existing lines of stem cells. By 2003-MAY, most of these lines had become useless. Only 22 remained in mid-2006, and many of them were of limited usefulness because of DNA damage.

Research continues in U.S. private labs and in both government and private labs in the UK, Japan, France, Australia, and other countries. On 2002-SEP, Governor Davis of California signed bill SB 253 into law. It is the first law in the U.S. that permits stem cell research. Davis simultaneously signed a bill that permanently bans all human cloning in the state for reproduction purposes -- i.e. any effort to create a cloned individual.

Following former president Ronald Reagan's death due to Alzheimer's in 2004-JUN -- a slow, lingering disease that took a decade to kill him -- Nancy Reagan and all of her family, except for Michael Reagan, mounted a campaign to encourage President Bush to relax restrictions on embryo stem cell research. Fifty-eight senators, almost all Democrats, sent a letter to President Bush, urging the same action.

A federal bill passed the House on 2005-MAY-24 to allow government funded research on embryonic stem cells extracted from surplus embryos in fertility clinics. It is expected to be voted upon by the Senate in 2006-JUL. President Bush has promised to veto it.


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