Important Questions About Stem Cell Research

What Are the Established Guidelines for Conducting Stem Cell Research?
Is the Use of Embryonic Stem Cell Research Legal?
What is a Stem Cell?
What is the future of stem cell research?
Are there alternative resources for stem cell research without using human embryos?
Is it practical to use embryos in stem cell research?
What Results Are Coming from Non-Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
Is Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy Popular Because of Its Success Rate? NO...
Conclusion
Additional Reading on Stem Cell Research...

 

What Are the Established Guidelines for Conducting Stem Cell Research?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued new guidelines for stem cell research on August 23, 2000, that would allow federal funding of research on stem cells that are removed from human embryos, but would forbid research on the embryo itself. (see National Institute of Health Guidelines for Research using Human Pluripotent Stem Cells, August 25, 2000, [corrected November 21, 2000] http://www.nih.gov/news/stemcell/stemcellguidelines.htm also see News and Events NIH http://www1.od.nih.gov/ormh/press_rel/stem_cell.html )

The 1996 law that prevents embryo use "in research" is circumvented by these new rules. Federal funding of any "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk or injury or death" is prohibited by law.

However, the guidelines do allow federal research on cells that have been taken from surplus frozen embryos already destined to be discarded by fertility clinics. The creation of an oversight committee called the Human Pluripotent Stem Cell Review Group will ensure compliance with these guidelines.

Former President Clinton had taken a position of support for stem cell research while in office. He said, "[stem cells offer] potentially staggering benefits" for a wide variety of medical conditions.

President Bush said during his Presidential campaign that he "would oppose federally funded research for experimentation of embryonic stem cells that require live human embryos to be discarded or destroyed," according to White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer on January 26, 2001. (1)

On February 28, 2001, HHS Secretary Thompson said that the administration would decide by summer whether to allow controversial stem cell research to proceed during his first year. (2)

Until that decision is reached, the Bush administration has suspended those guidelines, saying it wanted to review the scientific and ethical implications of the work.

However, evidence of the remarkable potential of the adult stem cells has continued to mount as President Bush deliberates over whether to allow federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells.

 Is the Use of Embryonic Stem Cell Research Legal?

An assessment of destructive human embryonic stem-cell research from a legal, ethical and scientific perspective’s was released by the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. (3) The funding of destructive human embryonic stem cell research is legally invalid, scientifically questionable, and ethically unsound according to conclusions of this analysis.

Clearly invalid legally is the federal funding of destructive human embryo research. To object to the Department of Health and Human Services ruling that seeks to bypass the congressional ban of federal funding of destructive human embryo research, 70 members of Congress, including the sponsor of the congressional ban - Representative Jay Dickey, wrote to the Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala: "Any NIH action to initiate funding of such research would violate both the letter and spirit of the federal law banning federal support for research in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed." (4)

Presently, in virto fertilization (IVF) clinics in the United States extract human stem cells from living embryos through privately-funded research. The living embryos (so-called "spares") are stored in fertility clinics awaiting implantation, after having been conceived via in virto fertilization (IVF). IVF clinics typically fertilize multiple eggs at once because embryos conceived through IVF techniques often have defects that make them unlikely to survive in the womb. The so called "spares" are available if embryos introduced to the mothers’ womb do not develop, or if additional children are desired later. Until further disposition on decisions are made, these "spares" are stored frozen.

However, this "supply" will probably prove insufficient for experimental needs if destructive human embryo stem-cell research continues. These embryos may also be ineffective for precision research and may be insufficient in number to meet the experimental demand. Furthermore, the embryonic stem cells may cause an immunological rejection by recipients, thus hampering the use of embryonic stem cells.

Likely to be medically more beneficial than their embryonic counterparts are non-embryonic human stem cells. The developments are summarized by the British Medical Journal:

This finding raises the possibility that adult human stem cells may some day be coached to grow into organs, regenerate damaged tissue, or reconstitute the immune system. The problem of immune rejection may also be circumvented if an individual’s own cells can be used. It also means that the need for fetal cells as a source of stem cells for medical research may soon be eclipsed by the more readily available and less controversial adult stem cells. (5)

What is a Stem Cell?

There are four different types of stem cells that are identified by the way in which they form into particular types of cells. These four types of stem cells are as follows: Totipotent stem cells, Pluripotent stem cells, Multipotent stem cells and Adult stem cells.

Totipotent Stem Cells

A one-celled fertilized egg is formed when a sperm cell and egg cell unite. This is a totipotent cell. This form of stem cell has the potential to give rise to any and all human cells like heart, brain, blood, and liver cells. In embryonic development, more totipotent cells are produced in the first few cell divisions. The cells start to specialize after four days of embryonic cell division.

Pluripotent Stem Cells

The ball of dividing cells forms itself into an outer layer, which will become the placenta, and an inner mass which will form the tissues of the developing human body on the fourth day of embryonic development. When missing the outer layer, those inner cells would not be able to form into almost any human tissue; but with the outer layer, they can. They are pluripotent and not totipotent.

These pluripotent stem cells start to specialize further as they continue to divide.

Multipotent Stem Cells

The progenitors of such cell lines as nerve, skin, and blood cells are the offspring of the pluripotent cells. They are multipotent at this stage in that within a given organ, they can become one of a general cell types. For example, multipotent blood stem cells can develop into platelets, white blood cells, or red blood cells.

Adult Stem Cells

In adult humans, scientists have identified multipotent stem cells that are used to replace cells that have died or lost function in recent years. In adults, stem cells have been identified, for example, in blood cells and nerve cells. Stem cells exist in other cell lines according to speculation by researchers.

At least in cell cultures, stem cells are cells that have the ability to divide forever. They can also develop into specialized populations of cells. In developing embryos, there are stem cells. And in adult humans, scientists have confirmed the existence of stem cells in recent years.

In fact, stem cells play a key factor in replacing worn and damaged mature cells in adults. Scientists assumed they exist prior to 1998 when the first stem cells were actually identified. Researchers cited bone marrow transplants as evidence for their existence. Chemotherapy destroyed all of the cells of bone marrow in the treatment of certain cancers. From healthy donors, that treatment was followed by transplants of bone marrow. Eventually, enough cells resulted from the small volume of transplanted bone marrow to allow the cells to repopulate the body with red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

What is the future of stem cell research?

Regardless of what politicians decide regarding the federal government's involvement in stem cell research, the scientific community's experimentation on stem cells has come too far to be discontinued according to biochemists, physicians and other scientists doing embryonic stem cell research. Furthermore, statements by supporters that blocking federal funding for frozen embryonic research will result in the loss of the phenomenal life-saving promise of the cells are untrue. It is generally understood in the scientific community that such work will mainly be supported by biotechnology companies that expect their new therapies to generate substantial profits. Academic scientists will gravitate to company laboratories if these companies provide sufficient funding for research.

Are there alternative resources for stem cell research without using human embryos?

Several research populations can be used to harvest human stem cells from adults with no harm to the donor. Rich sources of stem cells are also found in placentas and human umbilical cord blood cells. Also, theoretically possible, although the techniques currently do not exist, is the harmless extraction of stem cells from live fetuses.

Is it practical to use embryos in stem cell research?

Admitted by even its most ardent supporters, there are two big practical barriers to the use of embryos in stem cell research:

1. Embryonic "donors" tissue is incompatible

2. To develop the therapies from embryonic stem cells, the length of the development process required may be years or even decades.

What Results Are Coming from Non-Embryonic Stem Cell Research?

Major breakthroughs with adult stem cells have been demonstrated for several years. The distinct advantage of adult stem cells is that individuals can use their own cells to regenerate tissue. This procedure totally circumvents the problem of embryonic stem cell immune rejection.

Eighty-five percent of the patients showed beneficial results within six months in a recent study of 562 leukemia patients treated with placental blood containing hematopoietic stem cells. (6)

Through adult stem cell therapy, a sickle-cell disease patient demonstrated evidence of having been cured. (7)

Also, clinical trials are being conducted for AIDS therapies using patients' own blood stem cells. (8)

Currently in progress is the testing of a patient's own brain stem cells to produce dopamine for treatment of Parkinson's disease — called an "autologous transplant," the procedure allows the patient to act as both donor and recipient. Some of the advantages of this study — advantages that not only apply to this case but also in general to non-embryonic stem cells — were described by the researcher Michel Levesque, director of the Neuro-functional Surgery Center at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where the treatment is being tested. "What we have is a protocol in which we don't have to harvest 12 to 15 fetuses, we don't have to give immuno-suppressant therapy and we don't have to worry about viral disease transmission. (9)

Is Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy Popular Because of Its Success Rate? NO...

Researchers reported that implanting cells from aborted fetuses into patients' brains to treat Parkinson's disease not only failed to demonstrate an overall benefit but also, revealed a disastrous side effect in a carefully controlled study. (10) see http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/abstract/344/10/710.

The cells apparently grew too well, producing too much of a chemical that controls movement causing the patients to writhe and jerk uncontrollably in about 15 percent of the patients tested.

Six patients who enrolled in the study but who have not yet had the implantation operation have decided to forgo it on the researchers' advice.

In some younger patients, the transplant brought on serious side effects and in older patients, the operation was not beneficial according to the outcome of the study.

Absolutely devastating were the uncontrollable movements some patients suffered noted one researcher.

Dr. Greene, a neurologist at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a researcher in the study said, "They chew constantly, their fingers go up and down, their wrists flex and distend." He further noted that patients fling their arms about, writhe and twist, and jerk their heads.

Dr. Green added, "It was tragic, catastrophic. It's a real nightmare. And we can't selectively turn it off." One man was affected so badly that he had to use a feeding tube because he could no longer eat. Throughout the day, the condition came and went unpredictably and the man's speech was unintelligible.

Scientists have learned that mice cloned from embryonic stem cells may look identical; however, by harboring unique genetic abnormalities, many of them actually differ from one another. (11)

To help explain why so many clones do not survive to birth is the presence of those subtle and previously undetected genetic abnormalities.

Scientists may face unexplained challenges as they try to turn the controversial cells into treatment for various degenerative conditions if the same is true for human embryonic stem cells said researchers.

Conclusion:

Destructive embryonic stem cell research is immoral and unnecessary. Researchers should explore adult stem cell research. Major breakthroughs with adult stem cells have been demonstrated for the last two years. The distinct advantage of adult stem cells is that individuals can use their own cells to regenerate tissue. This procedure totally circumvents the problem of embryonic stem cell immune rejection.

 

Additional Reading on Stem Cell Research...

1. Human Mesenchymal Stem Cells Differentiate in the Lab http://www.the-scientist.com/yr1999/apr/lewis_p1_990412.html

2. Umbilical Cord Cell Could Create Heart Bypasses http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_510000/510072.stm

3. Stem Cells not Bound to Become Any Cell Type http://unisci.com/stories/19994/1207995.htm

4. Scientists Clear Ethical Barrier http://www.globeandmail.com/servlet/RTGAMArticleHTMLTemplate/D/20010130/wcell3001?tf=RT/fullstory.html&cf=RT/config-neutral&slug=wcell3001&date=20010130&archive=RTGAM&site=Front

5. Scientists Get Liver Cells from Blood http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/newsid_720000/720579.stm

6. New Alchemy: Bone and Cartilage From a Snippet of Skin http://nytimes.com/library/national/science/health/062000hth-body-skin.html

7. Tissue Grown in Lab Reverses Damage to Eyes

http://washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A31044-2000Jul12?language=printer

8. Turning Blood into Brain: New Studies Suggest Bone Marrow Stem Cells Can Develop into Neurons in Living Animals http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/nov2000/ninds-30.htm

9. Awakening Neurons Without Transplanting Stem Cells http://unisci.com/stories/20001/0224002.htm

10. Stem Cells 'Improve Stroke Recovery' http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_1264000/1264347.stm

11. Fat Is A Good Source of Stem Cells http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/10/health/10STEM.html?pagewanted=print

12. Company Says It Can Derive Stem Cells from the Placenta http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/12/health/12STEM.html?pagewanted=print

13. Umbilical Cord Blood Cells Are Potential Sources of Universal Brain Repair Tissue

http://www.ascribe.org/cgi-bin/spew4th.pl?fname=2001-05/20010509.130459&time=14:33+P.a

14. Researchers Discover in Bone Marrow An Adult Stem Cell That Can Transform Itself into Almost Any Organ in the Body http://www.ascribe.org/cgi-bin/spew4th.pl?fname=2001-05/20010508.125906&time=7:02+Pac

15. The Potential of Human Mesenchymal Stem Cells http://www.the-scientist.com/yr2001/may/hot1_010528.html

16. Clone Study Casts Doubt on Stem Cells http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A23967-2001Jul5.html

17. Cells, Fetuses, and Logic. Who is being sentimental, who rational, in this debate? http://www.nationalreview.com/23jul01/ponnuruprint072301.html

18. Blowing Smoke on Stem-Cell Research. Anything but the truth. http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-smith071201.shtml

19. Embryonic Stem Cell Research Can't Be Justified http://www.sptimes.com/News/072501/Opinion/Embryonic_stem_cell_r.shtml

20. Stem-Cell Pioneers Scold Overly Optimistic Politicians http://www.faz.com/IN/INtemplates/eFAZ/archive.asp?doc={2812C4ED-72E3-11D5-A3B5-009027BA22E4}&width=800&height=547&agt=explorer&ver=4&svr=4

21. Adult stem cell talents grow http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99991068

References:

1 Ron Fournier, " Bush Won't Fund Stem Cell Research," The Associated Press, January 26, 2001

2 Marlene Cimons, "Stem Cell Study Decision Due by Summer," Los Angeles Times, March 1, 2001

3 "On Human Embryos and Stem Cell Research: An Appeal for Legally and Ethically Responsible Science and Public Policy," (http://www.stemcellresearch.org/statement/statement.htm)Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, Bannockburn, IL (http://www.cbhd.org/)

4 Letter to Donna E. Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services, cited by Rick Weiss in "Federal Embryo Research is Backed," The Washington Post, May 23, 1999

5 Debora Josefson," Adult stem cells may be re-definable," British Medical Journal 318 (January 30, 1999): 282.

6 Pablo Rubenstein, et. al, "Outcomes Among 562 Recipients of Placental-Blood Transplants from Unrelated Donors," The New England Journal of Medicine 239, No. 22 (November 26, 1998): 1965-77

7 Patricia Guthrie, "Stem Cell transplant eliminates all traces of sickle-cell in teen patient," The San Diego Tribune, June 8, 1999

8 Laura Johannes, "Adult Stem Cells Have Advantage Battling Disease," The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 1999

9 Mark Moran, "For cell transplants, is one brain better than two? American Medical News, May 3, 1999, p. 29; also see: http://www.ama-assn.org/sci-pubs/amnews/amn_99/summ0503.htm - stories

10 Curt R. Freed, et.al, "Transplantation of Embryonic Dopamine Neurons for Severe Parkinson's Disease, "The New England Journal of Medicine 344, No. 10 (March 8) 710-719

11 David Humphreys, Kevin Eggan, Hidenori Akutsu, Konrad Hochedlinger, William M. Rideout, III, Detlev Biniszkiewicz, Ryuzo Yanagimachi and Rudolf Jaenisch, "Epigenetic Instability in ES Cells and Cloned Mice," Science, July 6, 2001: 95-97

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