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Stem cell research? Yes, but not embryonic kind
"So, Lori, if someone came up with a cure for diabetes using
embryonic stem cells, would you take it?"
My friend Sara Fagan put this question to me after the Notre Dame High School advanced biology class spent a day at a genetics conference for high school students in Syracuse. One of the main topics was stem-cell research.
So how does one answer a question like that? "Did you just say cure? You mean no more three-a-day shots or blood-sugar tests eight times a day or highs or lows or pump malfunctions or worrying about my blood sugar in the middle of an exam or quarterly trips to the doctor or getting my blood drawn? Never again? Cure?"
Sorry, I think I'll pass.
The key word in Sara's question is "embryonic."
Stem-cell research is one subject almost everyone has heard about. It can be found in the news frequently, especially in light of the recent death of Christopher Reeve, a strong supporter of stem-cell research (with no restrictions). Part of Sen. John Kerry's campaign included accusations that President Bush restricted stem-cell research.
Contrary to what some students may think, the president has not enacted a ban on stem-cell research. He stopped federal funding for the destruction of human embryos for research, but is funding adult stem-cell research and even continued work on the already-existing stem-cell lines obtained from human embryos.
But as popular as this subject is, few people understand the difference between these two types of stem cells, when it is the difference itself that causes the controversy.
Embryonic stem cells are from human embryos. As I learned at the conference, conducted by Dr. Sam Rhine, these stem cells are found in a human blastocyst, or in layman's terms, a six-day-old embryo. A person.
This tiny person (blastocyst) is a hollow ball of cells. A small indentation, called the inner cell mass, consisting of approximately 40 cells, is the source of what are more commonly known as embryonic stem cells, Rhine told us.
These cells are pluripotent, that is they have the potential to
become any of the 210 different types of human cells. Not only that,
they are "biologically immortal." They will keep dividing forever,
whereas other cells (including adult stem cells) will divide about 50
times, then stop. So with these 40 cells, a scientist could create any
number of organs: a liver, a kidney, a lung, a heart or a pancreas.
What no one hears about are the problems related to this seemingly wonderful situation. First, these cells are only available for 10 days. After that, they cease to have this pluripotency and biologic immortality, Rhine said.
And the bigger problem is that the scientist harvesting these cells must destroy the embryo in order to get them. In other words, the scientist is killing a person to get the stem cells to use to cure other people. It would be the same thing if that scientist murdered a passer-by to provide a patient with an organ. It's just a little more subtle.
In addition, as nice as this sounds on paper, it really doesn't work. Embryonic stem cells haven't cured a single disease, and they actually can cause cancer. Remember that they're biologically immortal. Cancer is an abnormal growth of cells that keep dividing, turning into what we know as tumors. See the connection?
Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are taken from, obviously, adults, or even the umbilical cords of infants. So the term "adult" here is rather misleading. After that 10-day period I mentioned, the embryonic stem cells become one of the four types of adult stem cells. They are slightly more specialized. These cells have more limitations than embryonic stem cells in regard to what types of cells they can become, but they are still usable.
They are even more effective than embryonic stem cells. If someone
needs a new kidney, for example, it may soon be possible to take that
person's own adult stem cells, found in bone marrow or their own
umbilical cord (which can be frozen and stored) and grow them a new one.
If that kidney originates from their own cells, there is no possibility
of their body rejecting it as foreign. And no cancerous growths. And it
isn't necessary to kill one person to improve the life of another,
Culture of Life Foundation President Austin Ruse, in a statement made after Reeve died, said, "The fact is that after 20 years and many millions of dollars, embryo-destructive research has not successfully treated a single patient or a single disease." Embryo-destructive research was nowhere close to helping Mr. Reeve walk again. To suggest otherwise does a disservice to those who suffer by raising profoundly false expectations that will not be realized.
While embryo-destructive research has cured no person and no disease, adult stem-cell research has already treated thousands of patients and more than 100 diseases. In fact, adult stem-cell therapy has already helped those with severe spinal cord injuries to walk again, two of whom testified before the U.S. Senate in September.
One of those who testified even suffered from quadrapelgia just like Christopher Reeve. Embryo-destructive research is morally problematic because it kills a human embryo in the process. On the other hand, adult stem-cell research poses no such moral dilemma. Polls also show that a majority of Americans prefer research that "does not kill the human embryo."
So, not only are adult stem cells more effective and less dangerous than embryonic stem cells, they are also morally acceptable. Why kill someone for some cells that won't help you when you can donate a few of your own and have the cure you've prayed for all your life? Diabetics, according to Dr. Rhine at the conference, are looking at a cure in as little time as two years, using adult stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells? No thank you.
Lori Janeski. "Stem cell research? Yes, but not embryonic kind." Star Gazette (November, 2004).
This article reprinted with permission from the Star Gazette. The Star Gazette is based in Elmira, NY, and serves readers in New York's Southern Tier & Pennsylvania's Northern Tier.
Lori Janeski is a senior at Notre Dame High School in Elmira, NY. She was diagnosed with type one diabetes at the age of 14.
Copyright © 2004 Star Gazette