Stem Cell Research: Science or Murder?

Stem Cell Research: Science or Murder?

by Mariah Wojdacz, December 2009

So what are stem cells, anyway? Some researchers believe them to be the most important medical advancement since the discovery of antibiotics, so great is their potential to relieve human suffering. Others believe the risks and ethical issues far outweigh any hypothetical, unproven benefits.

This debate first began in 1998, when researchers at the University of Wisconsin isolated cells from the inner cell mass of the human embryo. Sometimes called "master cells," these cells can be developed into almost any of the 220 types of cells in the human body - including heart cells, brain cells, liver cells. Researchers believe they can be used to treat a multitude of diseases that attack the blood, nerves, tissues, or organs - diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and many more. These same researchers have also sought to study their effectiveness in treating spinal cord injury and damage to other organs.

To date, no federal dollars have ever funded the extraction of embryonic stem cells. Research in this area has always been privately funded.

The controversy is that the "best" stem cells are retrieved from embryos that are then destroyed in the extraction process. Opponents of this research argue that stem cells can be obtained from adult tissues with no harm to the donor. Yet, the consensus is that these cells are not as useful, since they are limited in the types of cells they can produce.

Opponents continue to point to a 2003 case where a 16-year-old Michigan boy recovered from a nail gun shot through the heart after his injury was treated with his own stem cells, extracted from his blood. They argue that recent evidence suggests that adult stem cells may be more flexible than researchers previously believed.

Currently, there is no government ban on embryonic stem cell research or extraction, as many Americans erroneously believe. At issue is whether the government should use tax-payer dollars to fund research that requires the destruction of a human embryo or fetus.

In 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order that prohibited federal funding to research that would create an embryo for purposes of destroying it later. Two years later, Congress banned federal dollars from being spent on any research requiring the destruction of any embryo or fetus, regardless of where that embryo or fetus originated. Similar congressional bans have been passed every year since 1996. To date, no federal dollars have ever funded the extraction of embryonic stem cells. Research in this area has always been privately funded.

But what about stem cells that have already been extracted? Can federal dollars fund research on those? In 1998, in light of the discoveries in Wisconsin, the National Institute of Health asked the government those very same questions. The Department of Health and Human Services then decided that, since embryonic stem cells are not embryos themselves, federal dollars could be used to fund research on embryonic stem cells extracted in and obtained from privately funded laboratories.

In January 2001, President Bush placed a freeze on all government experiments using stem cells, saying that he believed "taxpayer funds should not be used to underwrite research that involves the destruction of live embryos," meaning that although the embryos are not actually destroyed in government labs, those labs purchase the stem cells from private research facilities. President Bush considers buying stem cells with federal dollars tantamount to government-funded destruction of life.

Several lawsuits were filed following President Bush's executive action. In March of 2001, Nightlight Christian Adoptions challenged the legality of federally funded research on embryonic stem cells. Two months later, actor Christopher Reeves and seven scientists filed another lawsuit, claiming that the Bush administration was delaying research that could save lives and causing irreparable harm to victims of diseases, and that the President did not follow appropriate administrative procedures.

Both lawsuits were rendered moot by in August 2001, when President Bush approved federal funding for research on existing stem cell lines, or stem cells already stored in government labs.

Researchers, however, are concerned that the existing stem cell lines are rapidly degrading, and some were genetically identical to others to begin with. Over 60 lines were originally approved for federal dollars, but now only 10 or 11 remain viable. The others have either died off or spontaneously converted into different types of cells.

In spite of these concerns, however, researchers do not intend to abandon their work with embryonic stem cells. Voters in California and New Jersey recently approved the use of state tax dollars to fund such research. And in Great Britain, stem cell research has blanket government approval and funding. If the remaining stem cell lines in the United States' government laboratories prove useless, the best government researchers in our country are likely to relocate, or continue their work in the private sector.

What do American citizens think about all this? Some polls indicate the public supports stem cell research by a margin of 3 to 1. Others suggest public opinion is split 50-50. According to Matthew Nisbet, assistant professor of journalism and communication at Ohio StateUniversity who recently conducted a study of over 150 polls on the subject, public opinion is volatile and uninformed. Nisbet says the poll results are influenced heavily by the phrasing of the questions.

For example, one poll asked respondents if they supported research done on stem cells "donated" from extra embryos, citing that the research may provide cures for eight high-profile diseases or injuries. This poll found that 65 percent of the public supported stem cell research.

But another poll asked respondents if they supported using "federal tax dollars" to fund "experiments" involving stem cells from "live" human embryos "destroyed in their first week of development." Seventy percent of respondents said they would oppose such research.

So when it comes to stem cell research, even the polls are controversial. It seems the only real consensus is that the issue remains completely unresolved. Last summer, a stem cell laboratory in Massachusetts was firebombed, and although no one was injured, the explosion blew out several windows, and is indeed cause for alarm.

This latest ruling out of Illinois will likely spark a new round of debates. Pro-Life advocates praised Judge Lawrence's decision, as they too believe that life begins at fertilization. Experts on abortion law believe the ruling is far to narrow to affect a woman's right to choose. But, if it stands, the ruling will increase the legal risks and liability for fertility clinics. And as for stem cell research, it seems the future may be growing even more uncertain.