The Great Stem Cell Debate

Recently Pres. Bush got much flack for vetoing the embryonic stem cell research grant bill or whatever it was actually called. Lost in the outcry was the fact that a similar bill which would give research money for stem cell research but without embryonic stem cells never made it out of committee. First, I admit a certain amount of ignorance to the science behind stem cell research, but my understanding is that there is no significant difference between embryonic stem cells and other stem cells other than availability. So my question is this, if we accept that in terms of research capability there is no difference between embryonic and other stem cells, isnt it better to research using nonembryonic stem cells? nonembryonic stem cells do not have the capability to ever become a full grown human being. Embyonic stem cells do have that capability. The honest truth is that we do not know for sure when life begins. Is it not better to err on the side of caution if there is no greater chance of curing disease by using embryonic stem cells?

Again, I admit that this may be moot if there is a substantial difference between embryonic and nonembryonic stem cells, but at this point it is my understanding that there is not. And if there is not, then wasn't it congress who dropped the ball by forcing a showdown with a president who has repeatedly shown that he really doesnt care what anyone else thinks. I am not backing the president, but I think you have to know your opponent.


scarlet panda said...

I agree with you that if there is no substantial difference between embryonic and nonembryonic stem cells, we should use nonembryonic.

But the premise doesn't hold up: there are significant differences between embryonic and adult stem cells. I can't imagine a scientist saying otherwise.

Embryonic stem cells have not yet specialized and are capable of becoming any type of tissue. Adult stem cells have already become partially specialized and can't necessarily be made into anything. Some are nearly completely specialized (like bone marrow stem cells); others are less so, but all are specialized to some extent. For those tissues for which adult stem cells are available, they're great. But for many types of tissue, adult stem cells are simply not available.

People who promote adult over embryonic stem cells do so on the theory that we don't know for sure that embryonic stem cells will lead to cures. They're right. The question is whether it's worth doing the research given the moral issues.

This is a decent introduction to the issue:


Arfanser said...

But can't you also get nondifferentiated stem cells from the umbilical cord and placenta?

scarlet panda said...

Not nondifferentiated, but less differentiated. It's a continuum. Only very early embryonic stem cells are completely undifferentiated and can become anything (totipotency). Umbilical or placental stem cells are generally less differentiated that most other types of adult stem cells, but they're not totipotent.

Arfanser said...

So in one hour my sister convinced me to wholeheartedly support embryonic stem cell research if certain conditions are met. First, the parents of the embryo must give consent to the use of the leftover embryos in the research. The consent must come after the parents have decided to terminate IVF treatments. Neither the parents nor the IVF clinic can receive compensation of any kind for the embryo's. Finally, researchers cannot create an embryo solely for the purpose of research. With those caveats, I am wholeheartedly on board with the embryonic stem cell research.

scarlet panda said...

Sounds reasonable enough. Your sister must be quite convincing.

Question: In the view you just expressed, no one can create an embryo solely for the purpose of research. But once the research is all done and the promise of stem cells realized, would it be ok to create an embryo solely for the purpose of harvesting its cells therapeutically? Suppose you have a kid with a horrible, fatal disease, and you know the kid would likely be cured if you could get your hands on some stem cells with similar genetic material. Could you create an embryo, IVF-style, solely for the purpose of destroying it for stem cells and saving your other kid?

If yes, why allow this and not the creation of embryos for research? Is it because the likelihood of producing a result is too slim?

If no, why not allow this if you allow the creation of embryos for IVF, knowing that it's nearly inevitable that some of them will eventually be destroyed?

Arfanser said...

No, because nearly inevitable is not the same as creating new life solely to destroy it. It is very similar in my mind to the parents who have another kid who will donate a kidney to the first kid. I think that is dispicable. Now having a whole other child is an order of magnitude difference, but still similar to a certain extent. The goal of the system that I talked about was to give the most respect to the lives of the patients who would be saved and the lives of the embryos. And yes, if the choice is killing an embryo or killing a child then by all means kill the embryo, but do not create an embryo to kill in hoping that will save a child. No medical procedure, especially life saving, is 100%. Even after the technology is developed it will not cure everyone. That is why I say no.