“Rearchers [sic] at Dalhousie University are leading groundbreaking studies into stem cell treatment of Parkinson’s disease and stroke and into the ethics of using stem cells from human embryos for research and therapeutic purposes” says a June 5th press release from the university.
This research, which seeks to utilize the regenerative properties of adult and embryonic stem cells, is expected to yield effective new treatments for a number of illnesses that were once though incurable, including Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, type 1 Diabetes, and even spinal cord injuries.
Despite the incredible promise of this research, and its potential for restoring health and physical ability to the chronically ill and severely disabled, it has been stymied by public concerns about the ethics of using embryonic cells. Some pro-life groups even claim that the practice amounts to the destruction of one human life, to save another. Oddly, the same argument is not applied to the harvesting of organs from brain-dead accident victims for transplantation into people in dire need of new organs.
The pro-life outrage over stem cell research, then, seems to imply that embryos are being created and destroyed solely for research purposes, whereas those who donate organs tend to die from accidents and other unavoidable causes.
This claim is misleading, and simply untrue. It also perpetuates a rampant misunderstanding about the nature of stem cell research. Here are some facts:
Stem cells are unspecialized human cells [meaning that they are not part of any organ, and they do not have a specific function] that can renew themselves over long periods of time through cellular division. Their special property is that under the right conditions, “these cells can be induced to become cells with special functions such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas” (NIH).
Essentially, stem cells are microscopic remnants of the primordial soup that our bodies use to create new cells as needed. Newly fertilized embryos are very rich with stem cells, because they are in the process of being formed, and many such cells are needed to create tissues, organs, bones, and other body parts.
To many, the concept of the regeneration of body parts may sound like science fiction. In reality, it is basic and demonstrable biological possibility. Our bodies regenerate to limited degree throughout our lives. When we are cut, our skin mends, broken bones knit together, and if we bleed our body creates new blood cells to replenish the supply. This sort of limited regeneration is taken for granted, and yet we have difficulty imagining the ability to re-grow entire parts. This is not all that rare in the animal world, however. When crustaceans like lobsters and crabs (http://www.crewdog.net/lobsterpage/animalfact.html) have entire legs or claws torn off, they will re-grow new limbs within a few years. The regenerative power of the planaria (http://ebiomedia.com/gall/classics/Plan/planaria.html) – a small, wormlike creature often used in biological demonstrations in middle and high schools – is well known. Like most worms, if it is cut in half it will form two living creatures. It a portion is cut off, it will regenerate what is missing. Many reptiles demonstrate similar properties.
It has long been understood that if animals can regenerate to this degree, then there is quite possibly some way to trigger a similar process in humans. After all, when our bodies first form, our stem cells generate entirely new sets of functioning organs, a rigid, weight supporting skeleton, eyes, hair, teeth, hearts, lungs, and everything else we require to support life. Therefore, human cells have the inherent ability to create every part of our bodies. Further, we know that the DNA in each and every cell of our bodies contains the blueprint for all of our body parts. All that is required to stimulate regeneration, are the undifferentiated cells that can create any organ or body part needed, and some way to stimulate the cells into providing what we need.
For some time, research was done on human growth hormone (HGH), as it was believed to be the key factor in cellular growth. In human stem cell research, however, a much more likely key has been found. In fact, this research has already been shown to be effective in treating Parkinson’s disease – a disabling condition long thought to be degenerative, inherited, and incurable. However, in the past decade, Swedish doctors have treated a few Parkinson’s patients with injections of stem cells into the affected areas of their brain, and the patients have responded with a dramatic reduction in symptoms. It would appear that the stem cells have replaced those cells in the brain that have been damaged, and actually become part of the new living brain tissue. This very different from treating illness with the drug — it shows promise of an actual cure.
Some success in combating diabetes has also been obtained by transplanting adult pancreatic islet cells (Diabetic News), but cellular rejection is still a problem, and the transplanted cells may have a limited lifespan. Stem cell research, using the more adaptable embryonic cells, could produce similar or better results, and the risk of rejection and cell death would be reduced.
So why would anyone want to block this kind of research?
Because of the notion that embryos are being created for the sole purpose of having their precious cells harvested for research.
This is simply not true. In a perfect world there would be no unwanted embryos, but this is not a perfect world. Current fertility enhancing procedures require scientists to create multiple embryos in the laboratory for implantation for in vitro fertilization methods. In most cases, more embryos are created than are required, and once pregnancy has occurred the extra embryos are usually destroyed. In some cases, the donors have agreed to allow the cells from these embryos to be used in research. It is interesting that the objection is not to creating unwanted embryos, but to how they are used when they are no longer needed. Apparently some protestors feel that anything is acceptable in the pursuit of children, but that any benefit beyond pregnancy is somehow repugnant.
Abortion is another issue tied up in this debate. There are harrowing tales of aborted fetuses being kept alive in secret labs, and drained of their stem cells for medical use. In fact, the stem cells being used in research are from eggs fertilized in vitro, not in a woman’s body. They are from blastocysts [the first form taken by the dividing cells of a fertilized egg] only a few days old – not functioning fetuses.
However, when the isolated stem cells are grown in the lab, there are tales of little Frankenstein’s monsters, being nurtured and grown to provide raw human materials. In reality, a growing fetus is made up of all kinds of specialized cells, which begin very early on to create organs, limbs, and other body parts. This is why embryos, early on, begin to look like babies. A mass of stem cells, however, is not a baby – the cells are not specialized, and they do not form organs, or body parts. They are alive as individual cells, but do not comprise an organism anymore than a strip of your skin – if cultured in a lab to grow larger – would constitute another person. Stem cell masses only have to potential to become specialized cells. In fact, the goal of research it keep the cells unspecialized. When cells are prompted to specialize and begin growing tissue, it is typically of one kind – i.e., liver, or heart cells, or perhaps neurons.
Clearly, a mass of liver cells does not constitute a living human by any measure. If it did, then when a diseased organ, or portion of an organ, is removed from a human for therapeutic reasons, that organ would be granted rights as a separate organism! In reality, researchers obtain no benefit from keeping viable embryos alive, or growing little monsters in petri dishes, as some would have you believe.
Given this, the claims of cruelty and killing when these cells are used are bizarre to say the least. Because stem cells remain unspecialized and self-renewing for many years, they are in essence not a functioning part of the living organism, but an extra supply of cellular material used for renewing worn and injured parts. Call it biological redundancy if you like.
It is also important to note that researchers are learning that stem cells taken from adult tissue may have a better ability to create new tissue than once thought. Stem cells taken from adult tissue have shown promise in the treatment of Parkinson’s, diabetes, and heart damage. As more is learned about how to utilize adult stem cells, the need for embryonic cells lessens.
This exciting branch of medical research is the first promising sign of a new medical system that will move away from the reliance on controlling illness with the application of drugs, to curing illness by repairing damaged tissues. The famed naturopath Paavo Airola often said that when the body is given the rest and care that it needs, and when factors that cause illness are removed, it will tend toward good health. Our systems are designed to repair damage, combat viruses and bacteria, and protect us from the environment. In many ways, stem cell applications aid the body in this natural healing process.
The Dalhousie release says that “stem cell research, although a complex and sensitive issue, may one day revolutionize the practice of medicine and cure diseases now considered incurable.” Dr. Ivar Menzed, head of Dalhousie’s Division of Neurosurgery and Chair of the Brain Repair Centre, says that “stem cell research offers us a real possibility of replacing damaged cells with healthy cells. This means we may actually be able to reverse the ravages of the disease as opposed to just slowing the progression.
“The stroke project, bringing together some 25 researchers nationally in a major multi-lab effort, will investigate harnessing the brain’s own ability to repair itself by seeking ways to recruit stem cells naturally present in certain areas of the brain to help repair damage in other areas. ‘The hope is that, within two years, researchers will know whether adult stem cells could potentially be used to repair damage to the brain caused by stroke,’ said Dr. Mendez.”
In order to address concerns about whether there really are sufficient “spare” embryos in fertility clinics to conduct this research, the Dalhousie group will survey “all 23 in vitro fertilization clinics in Canada to determine how many embryos are currently in storage and potentially available for research use.”
Dalhousie University Press Release (June 5, 2003). Exploring The Physiological And Ethical Implications Of Stem Cells. Online at: http://www.dal.ca/~pubrel/media/2003/2003-06-05.html
NIH. National Institutes of Health. Stem Cells: A Primer. Online at: http://www.nih.gov/news/stemcell/primer.htm#2
Diabetic News (June 6, 2003). Preliminary Results of Islet Transplant Trial Confirms Potential Patient Benefits. Online at: http://www.diabeticgourmet.com/tdn/news/501.shtml