Embryonic Stem Cell Research: New Developments and Controversies

When an embryonic stem cell research advance occurs, stories are given a superficial, brass band treatment by the media. Consequently, many people in the United States and elsewhere foster false beliefs regarding the awesome potential of embryonic stem cells for the development of new medical procedures involving regenerative medicine.

These misperceptions have societal consequences and seriously distort the bio-political debate over human cloning and embryonic stem cell research. As a result, public and private funding of embryonic and adult stem cell therapies research is detrimentally impacted.

Developing human embryonic stem cell therapy could prevent spending time and money to develop therapeutic cloning (which provides, at least in theory, perfectly immunocompatible, yet specific, tissues). People who only casually follow the research in the media are not aware of this advantage of embryonic stem cell therapy.

In December 2005, a BBC News article announced that embryonic stem cell research might become viable for the UK Stem Cell Bank, which learned that samples from 150 random human embryos (far fewer than previously thought) might be able to generate materials beneficial for two-thirds of the population. Potential benefits include replacing “diseased or damaged tissue in conditions such as diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders.” A University of Cambridge team studying such potentialities claims that tissues generated from a mere ten samples of a unique genetic strand could theoretically support a UK bank.

However, Prof. Roger Pederson points out that the process would require “additional regulatory review.” Displeased opponents claim “false hope” is being raised among “desperate patients.”

Despite such criticisms, many scientists believe stem cell research from spare in-vitro fertilized embryos offer the possibility of a more cost-effective and practical alternative to therapeutic cloning. The Cambridge scientific team calculated that cells from 150 random embryos would be enough to provide the best possible match for 13 percent of recipients, a favorable level of match for 65 percent, and some use for as many as 85 percent. Surprisingly, just 10 types of specifically selected genetic material would be enough to provide a favorable level of match for 78 percent of recipients.

Dr. Glyn Stacey, director of the UK Stem Cell Bank, acknowledged the importance of recent findings, but admitted researchers were still “a long way away in terms of establishing the basic cell-culture methods” and do not know “whether all stem cell lines will give the full range of tissues.”

The pro-life organization Life argues that research has shown adult stem cells preferable to embryonic stem cells for the purposes of treating disease, and therefore advocates the use of the former. Its spokesman Matthew O’Gorman further argues that “embryonic stem cell research involves destructive experiments on tiny human beings, which is why it has been outlawed in the majority of countries worldwide.”

Some weeks ago in the United States, Robert Lanza, a chief scientist at Advanced Cell Technology, announced that he has developed a way to generate stem cells without destroying embryos, possibly making O’Gorman’s argument irrelevant. Lanza claims to be able to remove a single cell from the blastomere without harming the embryo. This, he believes, diverts us from an ethical dilemma.

Prof. Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics, responds that this discovery and claim is little more than hype, arguing that stem cells from the blastomere may not be the same as those from two-day-old embryos, so the whole project might be worthless. Furthermore, extracting a single cell may be risking the life of the embryo, thereby raising ethical questions. Caplan also believes that people will not offer their embryos for removal of a single cell, despite whatever claims of procedural safety the scientist proclaims.

Lanza might therefore try to get the single cell by means of a pre-implantation diagnosis (often conducted for potentially genetically-diseased stem cells), but few researchers would want to grow stem cell lines from such cells. Furthermore, the cells must be accessed at infertility clinics, where embryos are created. Presently we can only produce multiple embryos, thereby leaving us with multiple frozen or destroyed embryos even if we use Lanza’s method. Thus, Caplan proposes that we just use embryonic stem cells.

In parallel, some politicians think that by regulating egg donation for research, some problems related to women’s rights might be smoothly resolved. But is that so? California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to pass S.B. 1260, a law protecting women who donate stem cells. The law, pushed forth by Sen. Deborah Ortiz, is the first concrete legislation in the U.S. that clearly details the risks women face when donating eggs for stem cell research. It requires written and oral consent for egg donation while limiting compensation for donations.

Proponents believe it is a key step toward increased consistency in egg donation practices, improved regulation of stem cell research, and protection of women’s rights, while others have noted that the bill smacks of paternalism and undermines the ability of women and researchers alike to pursue mutually agreeable research objectives without interference from authorities.

Clearly, legislation and public attitudes lag behind stem cell research. Let’s hope they catch up in time to allow those who could benefit from the research now to take advantage of it.

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