What’s all the fuss with stem cells?

Posted: January 17, 2011 in Arguments, Biology Related, Social Concerns
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I remember back when George Bush Jr. was in office he vetoed funding on stem cell research. Christians were celebrating as if it was some kind of victory, while everyone else was very upset. For years I never really knew why, and to be honest, I never really knew what a stem cell was. Of course there would be news stories on TV that would report on stem cell research, but I learned a long time ago not to trust anything you see on the news these days. It wasn’t until I took a Human Genetics course in college that I started to understand the controversy over Stem Cells. After researching them I asked myself, is Stem Cell research morally wrong? My conclusion is yes and no. That may seem odd at first, but as you read on it will make more sense.

First, what are stem cells? Stem cells are the miracle cells. The Chuck Norris of your body’s cells if you will. We all learned in biology that our cells divide and multiply, which allows us as humans to grow and heal ourselves. Well, none of that would be possible without stem cells. A stem cell is a non-specialized cell that can multiply into specialized daughter cells which can form to any specialized cell your body requires. Therefore, all the different types of cells your body needs to live; such as blood cells, tissue cells, bone cells, skin cells, or gland cells, can all come from a stem cell. In all, a stem cell can become 260 other types of cells.[1]

As you can probably already imagine, these cells are pretty important in the medical field. Stem cells can be injected into damaged areas of our body to create new tissue! People with damaged spinal cords can have stem cells injected into their back to generate new spinal cord tissue. Stem cells can repair heart tissue damaged in a heart attack, or help form insulin-secreting cells in diabetics. Like a medical miracle the possibilities seem endless. So then why are so many people up in arms about stem cell research?

At the time of fertilization, the human egg begins to rapidly multiply into multiple cells. These early cells are called totipotent, meaning they can become any other cell type in the human body, even extra-embryonic cells. These totipotent cells are the first stem cells. As time goes on some stem cells will become pluripotent, and eventually multipotent, meaning that the potential for these stem cells to become other cells types in more and more limited. This leads to the classification of two types of stem cells; Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC) and Adult Stem Cells (ASC).

Embryonic stem cells (ESC) are obtained from embryos. Four to five days after fertilization, when there are a large amount of unspecialized pluripotent stem cells. This large cluster of stem cells, which would in turn form all the specialized cells in a newly formed child, are instead harvested before the embryo can continue to develop. In other words, the embryo is disrupted and killed, and the cells are harvested.

Adult stem cells (ASC) on the other hand are obtained from adults. Technically ASCs can be obtained from any fully formed person whether they are an adult or infant. These cells can be found in our teeth, bone marrow, skin, blood, brain, intestines, liver, etc. The difference between ASC and ESC is that ASCs are believed to be limited in their potential to create a wide variety of specialized cells. This is because ASCs are further down the time line of differentiation making them multipotent.

So considering the two different type of stem cells, what are the pros and cons to each? Well the benefit of ESCs are that they are pluripotent, and can offer a wide range of daughter cells to produce just about any cells our bodies need. Also, ESC cells can essentially be farmed as fertilized eggs can be sold and banked from parents who have a surplus of in vitro fertilized eggs. Not to mention unfertilized eggs can be banked, and fused with the nucleus of a stem cell to “clone,” stem cells. Though there are many ethical problems here, the capability of cells being banked and stored is considered a benefit by biologists.

The downsides of ESCs should be obvious: In order to obtain ESCs a living embryo must be killed. There is no other way around it. Fertilization/conception, is the beginning of a new human life, biologically referenced as a zygote. At conception, the new life has it’s own genetic identity completely separate from its mother and father, rendering him/her as a completely separate and unique living individual that is genetically just as human as you or I. Christians, like myself, reference Jeremiah 1:4-5, Psalm 51:5, or Psalm 139:13-15 which clearly indicates we are live humans when conceived within our mothers. But this opinion of life beginning at fertilization/conception is not isolated to the religious Christian community. Countless secular scientist, doctors, biologists alike all agree with this as well. To reference a few;

“Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr. zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being. The common expression ‘fertilized ovum’ refers to the zygote.”[2]

“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed….”[3]

“A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).”

“The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”[4]

“The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual.”[5]

In essence, killing an embryo is no different than aborting a child. Destroying an embryo, is destroying a human life. However, many scientists rush to defend ESC therapy by claiming that the only embryos used will be the “leftovers.” Leftover embryos are surplus embryos left over from couples trying get pregnant in vitro, to which there are said to be a half-million currently stockpiled, which are to be discarded.[6] But think of what they’re saying. They’re saying that half a million embryos are going to be discarded anyways (which is unethical in itself), so we might as well put them to good use helping the sick. Sounds like a good argument at first, but it lacks moral backbone, stating that someone else is going to kill the life, so we should instead kill the life for a good cause. This is no way to logically or morally justify the killing of innocent human life.

But these are just downsides to the methods by which ESCs are obtained. When one looks into ESC treatment, even more downsides are discovered. For example, ESC treatment in laboratory animals leads to frequent cases of tumor growth, as the ESCs may interact with each other instead of the damaged tissues.[7] But the biggest issue is tissue rejection. As with any organ transplant, foreign ESCs are often recognized by our bodies as non-self, and thereby reject the cells. Since ESCs come from other people (that were killed), rejection of ESCs remains the number one problem for this treatment.

ASCs are the exact opposite. Unlike ESCs which are relatively easier to obtain, ASCs occur in our bodies in very small numbers, and are therefore very difficult to isolate and obtain. Obtaining enough ASCs to be effectively used is easier said than done, but no less, can be done and has been done for the last 40 years effectively. And unlike ESCs which can cause tumors and risk rejection, ASCs are obtained from the patient’s own body, and therefore don’t have those risks when injected into areas of damaged tissue.

Some argue, that there is a down side to ASCs in that they are down the line of differentiation and thereby cannot produce the wide variety of daughter cells that ESCs can. But research doesn’t necessarily support this claim. To date, ASCs have been used to produce every type of specialized cell in our bodies.[8] ASCs have been known to revert back to pluripotent form, thereby allowing them to be used to create a wider variety of cells then initially believed. What was a problem in theory, has not been a problem in practice.

Another factor that should be addressed is the track record. Unlike ESC therapy which is mostly still in research, ASC therapy has been used for over 40 years to treat over 70 diseases. Dr. Tommy Mitchell M.D. stands by ASC treatment, “ASC have a proven track record with hope of greater successes to come… For some reason, the media, when reporting on these issues, has consistently downplayed these successes and even implied that these successes are the result of embryonic stem cell research rather than adult stem cell research.”[9] ESC on the other hand can only be speculated to be as successful if not more successful than ASC. I feel I must refer to the old adage, “If it aint broke, don’t fix it.”

But even if ASCs weren’t effective, there would still be no justification for ESC therapy. Yes, sick people deserve cures and treatment, but ESCs are obtained by destroying embryos. So effectively, we’re killing humans in order to potentially save another human (which isn’t even guaranteed). That is illogical and unethical to say the least.

So when you read or hear about stem cell research, it is important to understand and identify which type of stem cells are being referenced, whether ESCs or ASCs. The good news is when it comes to stem cells this is a situation where Christians can have their cake and eat it too. We can standby ASC therapy which is effective and ethical, but we should not support ESC therapy, of which effectiveness has yet to be proven and is in itself incredibly unethical. The decision is easy for molecular geneticist Dr. Georgia Purdom, PhD. who concludes, “As has been shown, stem cell therapy has the potential to alleviate much suffering. It is an avenue of medical research that should be pursued in hopes of building on the success already achieved. However, in our haste to help the sick, we must not neglect those who cannot speak for themselves. Adult stem cell therapy can allow us to fight disease without destruction of human life.”[10]

[1] Ricki Lewis, “Human Genetics; Concepts and Applications- 8th Edition,” (McGraw-Hill; New York: NY) 2007, pg. 34.

[2] Moore, Keith L. and Persaud, T.V.N. Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects. 4th edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1993, p. 1

[3] O’Rahilly, Ronan and Müller, Fabiola. Human Embryology & Teratology. 2nd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996, pp. 8, 29.

[4] Sadler, T.W. Langman’s Medical Embryology. 7th edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995, p. 3

[5] Carlson, Bruce M. Patten’s Foundations of Embryology. 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996, p. 3

[6] Ricki Lewis, “Human Genetics; Concepts and Applications- 8th Edition,” (McGraw-Hill; New York: NY) 2007, pg. 34.

[7] Joseph Panno, Stem Cell Research (New York, NY: Facts on File, 2005) pg. 9

[8] “Adult Stem Cell Pluripotency,” www.stemcellresearch.org/facts/ASCRPlasticty.pdf

[9] Dr. Tommy Mitchell and Dr. Georgia Purdom, “The New Answers Book 3” What about Cloning and Stem Cells? (Green Forest: AR, Master Books 2009) pg. 141.

[10] Dr. Tommy Mitchell and Dr. Georgia Purdom, “The New Answers Book 3” What about Cloning and Stem Cells? (Green Forest: AR, Master Books 2009) pg. 142.

*Stem cell photo from: http://www.biology.arizona.edu/immunology/tutorials/immunology/graphics/cell.gif

  1. matthew2262 says:

    A European Court of Justice declares the use of Embryonic Stem Cells “immoral.”

    The defendants claim that it can’t be considered immoral if other international research organizations are doing it. Which is a very poor argument to make because it does not adress the morality of destroying ES cells but instead appeals to bandwagon logic: Everyone else is doing it, so how can it be immoral? Morality is not determined by popularity…

  2. matthew2262 says:

    ■“A significant step forward in using pluripotent stem cells to repair and replace bone tissue” reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that it may be possible to “grow compact bone in quantities large enough to repair centimeter-sized defects.” The actual study was conducted using human embryonic stem cells but in order to avoid the tumors that are “consistently observed when undifferentiated hESCs are implanted,” the mouse immune systems were suppressed. The bone grafts were grown on scaffolds that guided development and then transplanted into the immunodeficient mice where they continued to produce healthy bone for 8 weeks. Knowing that the new scaffolds are able to successfully guide the pluripotent cells in bone formation, lead author Dr. Darja Marolt is developing technology to use induced pluripotent stem cells to grow bone grafts in patients with traumatic injuries and birth defects. The induced pluripotent stem cells can be produced from a patient’s own cells and therefore should avoid problems of graft rejection. This bone graft engineering technology will represent another therapeutic opportunity to use a patient’s own stem cells, thus avoiding potential immune system problems. There is no need to destroy innocent human life to make this treatment available for patients. In fact, despite headlines hailing the success of embryonic stem cells in this laboratory’s research, the embryonic stem cells have proven impractical for therapeutic use due to their tendency to form tumors.

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