Getting the facts straight is crucial.
BY FRANK BARBARO
Dr. Hans Keirstead of the Reeve-Irvine Spinal Cord Injury Research Center recounts a story. He injected 1,500,000 human stem cells into a crippled rat’s spinal cord, and they regenerated lost tissue, allowing the rat to walk again. This result was published recently. He has since received hate mail claiming that by doing this experiment he had destroyed 1,500,000 human lives. This is not true, but it is an extremely common misconception. The debate over stem cell research has become as vehement as the debate about abortion, and many of the same issues have arisen. If we, as a society, are to have a reasonable discussion about these topics, we must first agree on the facts.
Stem cells, so named because every other type of tissue in the body stems from them, cannot turn into people any more than skin cells can turn into people. Stem cells are early versions of human cells that have the ability to become any other kind of cell in the body. However, the stem cells which are used in research have already undergone a critical change. After fertilization, the fertilized egg divides a number of times to become a blastocyst, a bi-layered mass of cells. Stem cells come from the inside of this blastocyst. The entire blastocyst is necessary for the development of a human being individual stem cells alone cannot become people, so it can no longer be said that destroying these cells is destroying a human life. This is why George Bush could comfortably say that it is OK to do stem cell research with existing cell lines.
The promise of stem cell research is manyfold. Stem cells can be teased into becoming any kind of tissue, and then this tissue can be studied without having to remove it surgically from patients. Stem cells from diseased people could be transformed in a lab into diseased tissues (such as brain tissue), which could then be used to study the disease and test potential cures. In this way, we could greatly speed up the process of finding a cure for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and do so much more ethically. Stem cells can also be used to replace lost or damaged tissue, such as the spinal cord in Keirstead’s rat.
The sticking point, then, isn’t what we do with the stem cells, but where we get them. The only stem cells in the U.S. today come from frozen stocks in fertility clinics. When a woman goes to a fertility clinic, the clinics typically collect and fertilize about 30 eggs, which are serially implanted until the woman becomes pregnant. The remaining fertilized eggs are frozen. These are President Bush’s “Snowflake Babies” so named because they each represent a unique, microscopic, frozen individual. It is currently illegal to use federal funds to study these cells. The legislation moving through Congress right now, which George Bush has threatened to veto, would change this. NOBODY, however, wants these cells to be destroyed not the scientists nor the religious right, nor the public, nor the president. This might be a good place to start a moratorium on the disposal of these cells, at least until we figure out what to do with them.
Recent technological developments in Korea may provide an interesting solution to this problem stem cells can now be made with that person’s consent, from adult tissues such as skin cells. These “personalized” stem cells have an added benefit: They can be used to grow tissues that will not be rejected by the donor they are, after all, his or her own flesh. Techniques are also being developed to remove embryonic stem cells from blastocysts without destroying them. This would not be “science which destroys life in order to save life,” which is the only thing that Bush is explicitly against. Furthermore, since these stem cells come from adult tissues, we know that their DNA is complete. Over half of fertilized eggs have fatal genetic problems, and never make it to term. This applies to Bush’s “snowflakes” as well about half of them would never survive the natural reproduction cycle.
Because of the broad ban on stem cell research, American scientists have not had access to the raw materials they need, and America is falling behind the rest of the world in this important area of research. Korea, the UK, China and now Canada are all producing new embryonic stem cell lines. If Mr. Bush insists on saving the snowflake babies, then A LOT MORE MONEY must be invested in stem cell research so that we can compensate for our own self-imposed ethical restrictions. This is the only way that America will be able to stay at the forefront of this extremely exciting field, and deliver the promise of stem cell research to waiting Americans. OCM
Frank Barbaro is chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party. He thanks Drs. Hans Keirstead, Aileen Anderson and Gabriel Nistor for their help with this article
Doctor Kierstead spoke at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's, Orange County Chapter annual luncheon. It seemed that everyone present was spellbound by the presentation. Seeing a paralyzed rat walk again encouraged most that were there