Research on embryonic stem cells has been a political ping pong ball since President Bush took office.
In 2001, the president restricted testing to only those strains of stem cells already in the lab. Immediately members of the scientific community criticized the ban on one of medicine’s most promising fields of inquiry.
More economic critics are concerned about the opportunity lost to foreign nations, which have not curtailed the testing.
But Bush has remained steadfast in his moral objections to the experimentation. This is despite some high profile breaks on the issue within his own party.
In mid-2005, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a conservative Republican and a physician, broke with the president’s stance. “While human embryonic stem cell research is still at a very early stage, the limitations put in place in 2001 will, over time, slow our ability to bring potential new treatments for certain diseases,” said Frist in a speech in the Senate.
He has been joined over the last several years by other high-profile dissenters, including members of the Reagan family who cite stem cells’ promise in treating Alzheimer’s, the degenerative brain disease that afflicted former President Reagan.
Celebrities, including the late Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox, have also promoted the practice.
Human embryonic stem cells are harvested from human blastocysts and have the potential to regrow a variety of human tissues. They might prove to be the key in treating and curing medical problems from injured spinal cords to cancer.
Stem cells are derived during the process of in vitro fertilization. When doctors attempt in vitro fertilization, they do not fertilize one egg. They fertilize a bunch because implanting in the uterus successfully may require several tries. Once they are successful, however, they are left with extra frozen embryos. Parents are given the opportunity at that point of donating them to science.
After that, the four- or five-day-old cluster of cells is broken up into its parts and the stem cells are allowed to divide and produce more.
These stem cells are promising to scientists because they are cells that reproduce themselves through division and can and will turn into any of the cells in the body.
Adults have stem cells too, although most of them are limited and can only become certain kinds of other cells. They are much rarer in the adult body and it is not known where they come from, so generating the large numbers needed for successful therapies is not currently possible.
Advances are being made that may one day overcome these obstacles. Already, for decades adult stem cells have found many uses in medicine, such as transplants and certain forms of cancer treatments.
While many obstacles still exist(such as rejection of the foreign tissue), embryonic stem cells could one day be used to regenerate and replace damaged cells. Applications could include the treatment of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
For example, it might be possible to grow new heart cells in the lab and then transplant them into patients with heart disease. Diabetics’ insulin producing cells in the pancreas are killed by their own immune systems. One day stem cells could be used to replace those cells and make insulin injections a thing of the past.
The NIH also suggests that even whole organs might be regrown to make up for the deficit in transplants.
Still others have found promise in numerous other uses. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has investigated using stem cells to fix deteriorating vision. Still others believe they have discovered that stem cells hold the key to curing cancer.
Researchers at the University of Michigan and other universities has discovered stem cells in the heart of various kinds of tumors. And researchers at the University of Toronto have discovered that leukemia can only be caused by a very few leukemia cells — which are remarkably like stem cells.
Cancer treatments are ineffective against this stem-cell-like core, which might be why cancer so frequently returns after it appears to be gone. Finding treatments that will target these cells might prove to be the silver bullet the medical community’s spent decades looking for.
Despite these promising findings and theories, the moral issue remains.
Conservative groups see the destruction of embryos in the process of harvesting the stem cells as a violation of the sanctity of life. Groups from the Christian Defense Coalition to the associations of Catholic bishops have denounced the practice.
In a March pastoral letter, the bishops of Kansas wrote, “It is never morally permissible to destroy one human life even if it is done in the hope of benefiting other human beings. Laws intended to sanction embryonic stem cell research are immoral because they give legal protection to the violation of the most fundamental of all human rights.”
Overall, the American people favor continuing research. According to the most recent applicable study from the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans say it is more important to continue research, while 32 percent say it is “more important to avoid destroying the potential life of human embryos.”
The opinions of the public have moved onto the research side of things since 2002, and some interesting trends have emerged. Consistently, those who say they’re paying “a lot” of attention to the issue are more likely to favor it. Also, 2006’s study recorded the highest support for research among evangelical Christians ever, at 44 percent.
The question of whether stem cell research is morally acceptable is something society as a whole continues to struggle with, and the president has remained committed to his ban, despite shrinking strains for research. The 22 cell lines in the United States since 2001 are weakening as they are asked to reproduce so many times.