A ‘Go’ for Stem Cell Research?

Published: January 5, 2006  |  Source: umpi.maine.edu
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Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the potential to develop into any kind of tissue in the body (e.g. blood cells, heart cells, brain cells etc.) This has lead scientists to investigate the possibility of using them in regenerative medicine, a cell-based therapy to treat disease. Some regard them as offering the greatest potential for alleviation of human suffering since the development of antibiotics. Stem cells can possibly be used to treat Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, traumatic spinal cord injury, heart disease, vision and hearing loss, muscular dystrophy.

Stem cell research has great promise but introduces ethical dilemmas because the research essentially involves the use of human embryos, thus life. Is it permissible to use human embryos to find cures for diseases that have and will debilitate millions? Should the tax payers’ money be used for this? Citizens as well as researshers are equally divided in this debate. But recent developments may avoid this ethical quandary. For the last few years, a lot of research is being done using adult and cord-blood stem cells. Scientists are also working on ways to extract embryo cells without sacrificing the embryos.

Typically, scientists acquire stem cells from embryos (usually left over from fertility treatments) that are a few days old. The embryo is tiny enough to fit on the end of a pin, but this process destroys the embryo. There are also other kinds of stem cells in our body – adult stem cells. They are undifferentiated cells found in certain tissues like the brain, bone marrow, skin and liver which help maintain tissues in which they are found. Scientists studying their Plasticity have found them to be pluripotent (have the ability to develop into multiple types of tissues like embryonic stem cells, e.g. bone marrow cells can give rise to cardiac and skeletal cells). This finding has induced great excitement. The same has been found for placental and umbilical cord-blood stem cells. Cord-blood stem cells have already been used to treat thousands of patients with more than 65 diseases including sickle-cell anemia and leukemia. If adult and cord-blood stem cells are so potential, why can’t they be substitutes for embryonic stem cells for research? This would also help avoid all ethical concerns on stem cell research. Unfortunately, adult stem cells have important limitations and some scientists favor embryonic stem cell research for many other reasons.

Professor Helen Blau of Stanford University says, “The field of adult stem cell research is very recent, only two years old. They may not do everything we want them to do. We know a lot about embryonic stem cells; they can be manipulated better.” Through embryonic stem cell research we can explain complex events during human development, find clues about abnormal cell growth (as in cancer) and try new drugs. Further, adult stem cells are found in small quantities and not every tissue of the body has it. They may be unusable if the patient has genetic defects or some other form of DNA defects. But the proponents of adult stem cell research say that embryonic stem cells are too carcinogenic (wild) for therapeutic purposes. Some experts believe that it might take two to three decades before we develop cures from them. A potential advantage of using adult stem cell is that patient’s cells can be reintroduced into his own body. This avoids the likelihood of these cells being rejected by the immune system as will be the case with embryonic stem cells. (However, immunosuppressive drugs can be used if the body rejects foreign cells, tissues or organs). According to NIH, adult stem cells could provide certain benefit over embryonic stem cells, but urges that research be carried out with both kinds of stem cells. Many scientists agree on the need to research into both – adult and embryonic stem cells. New promise for embryonic stem cell comes from some recent developments. Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) removed a single cell from mouse embryo without killing the mouse. Another technique is to extract stem cells from embryos that are genetically altered to make it impossible to implant in the uterus. However, this has been criticized as a diversion of good science by politics.

Recently, President Bush allowed federal funding for stem cell- research using the 60 existing stem lines in various research facilities. However, it doesn’t allow federal funding for new stem cell research using the excess embryos at fertility clinics. “I have made this decision with great care, and I pray that it is the right one”, Bush said. But this doesn’t entail the legality of stem cell research but rather federal funding. Stem cell research is entirely legal in the United States, but without federal funding and regulations, it may not be done as ethically. To consider ethical and scientific considerations, President’s Council on Bioethics has also been created. As the President said, stem cell research involves great promise and great peril. We much proceed with great social and ethical care.
As an artist I face scrutiny all the time. I have been laughed at for wanting to do my art in northern Maine. I have been called a pornographer from time to time (which I addressed in the article titled “Is it a work of art or just plain pornography”). This is just a few of the problems I face as an artist.

So what do I do when people tear my work apart? That’s easy, I turn to my wife and friends and admires of my work. It is because of these people that I am able to continue with my art. They give me all the strength and support that I need to not give it up. And trust me there have even been times when I packed up my entire studio into about 8 or 10 boxes and put it in the corner of my office. Even after all that I am still here doing my best to get my message out there. If it weren’t for those that support me I would be sitting here regretting ever stopping my work. But not everyone has that kind of support group.

So what do you do if people don’t support your work as an artist, or any kind of work that you do? Use them to further your work. It was once said to keep your friends close and your enemies’ closer. This works also in our jobs.

Having people support you is a great feeling. Those that don’t support you can further your work. They can be the drive and determination that pushes you. Prove to them that you can do it. Show them that you are good at what you do by succeeding at it no matter what. If you have to defend yourself make sure you are factual in what you do. Make sure all your T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted. Your passion for your work and determination should show in everything you do.

Written by Bibek Karki