Facts of Life: Stem Cell Research
The following are answers to some common questions you may encounter in discussions or debates about the issues regarding stem cell research.
Question: Is an embryo a human being, or simply a form of non-human biological life?
Fact: Various advocates of embryonic stem cell research have attempted to de-humanize embryos in the first two weeks of life by labeling them “pre-embryos." However, this baseless term has not been accepted by the National Institutes of Health’s Human Embryo Research Panel, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission or Congress. It has also been rejected by modern embryological science books.
Question: What is a stem cell?
Fact: Stem cells are cells that can divide indefinitely in culture, manufacturing other cells like red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and skin cells that perform designated tasks for the human body. It was the traditional belief of scientist that stem cells should only be procured from embryos. However, recent biological advances have provided cogent evidence that there is an increasingly bountiful resource of stem cells which can be found in the bodies of adults and other non-embryonic life forms.
Question: What are embryonic stem cells?
Fact: Embryonic stem cells are taken from human embryos usually during the first week of life. Thus far, these stem cells cannot be extracted from embryos without destroying embryonic life. When scientists remove inner cell mass stem cells from inside the blastocyst, (the multi-celled embryo on the fourth or fifth day of development), the embryo dies. The blastocyst is more developed and complicated than the zygote. During the blastocyst phase the embryo makes hormones controlling pregnancy and begins to interact with uterine wall blood vessels. After discarding the dead embryo, scientists attempt to “coax” the embryonic cells in an effort to transport them into different types of tissue, such as nerve cells or skin cells. The number of embryonic stem cells multiplies indefinitely, and scientists hope that cells harvested from embryos may be used in the future to treat disease for suffering patients.
Question: Have embryonic stem cells effectively treated or healed ill patients?
Fact: No person has ever benefited medically from embryonic stem cells. According to Markus Grompe, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics, Oregon Health Sciences University, “There is no evidence of therapeutic benefit from embryonic stem cells.” In fact, experiments performed on diabetic mice in March of 2000 at the University of Florida suggested that embryonic stem cells may be harmful to patients. Embryonic stem cells failed to save the mice, who died after receiving the transplanted cells. Arthur Caplan and Glenn McGee of the University of Pennsylvania reported that in one study 15% of subjects afflicted with Parkinson’s saw their condition deteriorate after undergoing injections of fetal tissue cells, which created an overabundance of dopamine (the major chemical lacking in Parkinson’s victims).
Question: Have adult stem cells successfully treated disease or healed ill patients?
Fact: Adult stem cells have helped hundreds of thousands of sick patients. In sharp contrast to the utter inability of embryonic stem cells to reverse diabetes, researchers at the University of Florida announced in March 2000 that adult pancreatic stem cells saved the lives of diabetic mice, Also, fifteen people suffering from Juvenile Diabetes were cured with adult pancreatic islet cells, while a paraplegic woman regained the ability to move her toes and legs after receiving adult immune-system cells. Further, two children born without immune systems recovered from their condition after bone marrow stem cell transplants, and several individuals afflicted with blindness experienced an improvement in eye sight following surgery on the cornea with corneal stem cells. Adult stem cells have been utilized in clinical trials to aid patients with a variety of sicknesses, including Breast Cancer, Ovarian Cancer, Stroke, Type 1 diabetes, anemia, multiple sclerosis, lupus, as well as juvenile and other forms of rheumatoid arthritis. In 2012, stem cells were used to aid kidney transplants, to treat a rare immune disorder and to heal a four-year-old girl's heart defect.
Question: Aren’t embryos going to be thrown away in many cases? Why not use those embryos for potentially life-saving research since they're eventually going to be destroyed anyway?
Fact: To begin with, it is always unethical to end one life for the purpose of saving another. All life is sacred from conception to natural death, and therefore should be treated with the equal respect that it deserves. Furthermore, this argument rests upon the assumption that frozen embryos have to be discarded by parents who no longer want or need them. Throwing out “excess” embryos is not an absolute medical necessity. On the contrary, mothers and fathers of extra embryos now have the option of preserving them for future pregnancies or for other couples trying to have children. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on July 5, 2001 that 59% of patients who originally intended to throw out excess embryos ultimately decided to keep them for other couples or further pregnancies. Also, many of the same scientist who say “the embryos are going to be discarded anyway” are creating new embryos for deadly research instead of operating on existing ones.
Question: Don’t most Americans support stem cell research?
Fact: Yes, but the overwhelming majority prefers adult stem cell research to stem cell experimentation on human embryos. A multi-issue poll by International Communications Research from June 1-5, 2001 showed that 70% of Americans were against government funding for embryonic stem cell research. In fact, ICR learned in a June 8, 2001 survey that U.S. citizens favored adult stem cells research over embryonic stem cell harvesting 67% to 18%.
Question: What is cloning?
Fact: Cloning is achieved through a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer that forms the embryo of a given species. In this process, a nucleus is taken from one organism and is used to create an embryo which would develop into a genetically identically individual.
Questions: Could humans be cloned?
Fact: Humans could be cloned by using a human nucleus in the process of somatic nuclear transfer. This produces a human embryo completely similar to the person from whom the nucleus was taken.
Question: What does human cloning have to do with embryonic stem cell research?
Fact: Many scientists want to clone human embryos for the purpose of instituting "embryo farms" that would provide an innumerable pool of embryonic stem cells for experimentation. A June 2001 International Communications Research survey showed 86% of the American public agreeing that human embryos should not be brought into existence for the sole purpose of being destroyed in research.