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Stem of the stem-cell controversy

Posted By Medicine Men On 08/10/2001 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Take out your pencils for a pop quiz: What’s a stem cell?

We bet most Americans, while having an opinion about stem cell research, can’t answer the question. While dueling political pundits sound off “Yea” or “Nay” for government funding of embryonic stem-cell research – which President Bush just announced yesterday was all a go – we think everyone’s missing some of the most basic questions that go to the heart of the debate. Let’s take a moment to turn down the volume and examine the facts.

First off, what in the world are human “stem cells”? For that matter, what are cells?

These biological cells are one kind of tiny, tiny living building block that make up larger living things, including our own bodies. They are so tiny that our body is made up of trillions of cells.

Most cells have a primary job such as skin cells which protect more delicate parts of the body underneath, red blood cells which carry oxygen to all parts of the body, and brain motor cells which send out signals carried over nerve cells to muscle cells that cause our fingers to type these words.

In contrast, stem cells can divide and differentiate or turn into many kinds of cells. For example, millions of blood cells are released into the blood stream every second, divided off from the stem cells inside the bone marrow. Our bodies need these millions of blood cells every second to replace the millions recycled by the body every second. In another example, the cells lining your guts and digesting that bagel you ate this morning only live about 3 days before being recycled. Blood-and-gut stem cells keep dividing to produce these cells.

Because of the way they work, stem cells are intensely interesting to medical scientists; these cells might provide clues for curing or treating disease. Much like the cavalry riding in to save the day, your body’s own stem cells can quickly fill in the gaps when derivative cell types are needed. Scientists hope they can figure out how to make stem cells do that job even better, so they can be used to restore health in people with diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes.

Scientists have been doing adult stem cell research for a decade, while the experimental use of embryonic cells only started in 1998. But the most progress and most promising treatments so far have come from use of adult stem cells, not embryonic ones. At this time, hopes for possible cures from embryonic stem cells are still science fiction.

Many private companies are already working with stem cells, including embryonic stem cells. Even if Bush hadn’t given the green light to fund the research, that exploration would continue.

There are some practical reasons for the government to keep its red-tape encrusted mitts off embryonic stem cell research, mainly that government-funded research is subject to the winds of political fashion and establishment thinking; cutting-edge ideas have a harder time getting money than older and safer ideas. At the same time, trillions of taxpayers’ dollars have simply disappeared, without a trace, down bureaucratic and research rat holes.

But the all this heat, smoke and light generated by the current debate leads us to believe that the issue is basically a philosophical or religious question – is a human being destroyed to produce embryonic stem cells?

Supporters say that the embryos used are leftover from fertility treatments, and would be destroyed anyway. Opponents respond that the argument is a rationalization and question the practices producing these “out of body” embryos. Both positions are based on strongly held beliefs about when human life begins.

But black-and-white arguments often turn gray when you or a loved one are waiting for a cure. Even some who say human embryos shouldn’t be sacrificed to harvest stem cells respond differently when offered hope of a cure for a loved one.

Many of the politicians and commentators on the question have become instant experts, usually relying on their own view of how the world works and what’s important. Many also demean the position of people with diverse views.

Science writer and commentator Michael Fumento warns, “people are scared. Rightly or wrongly, use of embryonic cells invokes visions of Dr. Josef Mengele and a terrifying slippery slope towards playing around with human life.”

Ultimately, it seems that the debate is not so much between science versus religion, but between conflicting religious – or if you prefer, “belief” – systems that will never be reconciled.

If Congress decides to get involved, looking for and using adult stem cells would be the practical and pragmatic direction for government-sponsored research to take. But as a religious issue, perhaps government should indeed stay out of the embryonic stem cell research business before new centuries of religious wars break out.


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