Stem Cell Research: The Good, the Bad and the Obvious

They want you to believe it’s a political battlefield divided along lines of morality.

They anticipate we’ll be gullible enough to accept that a man sitting in the Oval Office with a group of politicians and legislators will determine the ultimate fate of human embryonic stem cell research in our nation.

They want you to know that human embryonic stem cell research is “life-saving” as opposed to human cloning which is considered unethical by the majority.

According to CNN (July 31, 2001), “Sixty-one senators urged President Bush in two separate letters Friday to allow federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, stepping up the pressure as Bush nears a decision on the issue.” With or without the president, our appointed politicians have made up their minds. Even a veto will not prevent what many consider to be inevitable scientific progress.

Perhaps it’s time for a reality check.

Let’s begin by simplifying the concept of creating and harvesting embryonic stem cells. The process is actually quite simple. It begins with in-vitro fertilization or IVF. An egg removed from a woman is fertilized in a lab though the injection of a sperm. The cells of the embryo begin to divide, and after a few days, a clump of cells called a blastocyst exists. Typically it is inserted in a uterus where it can proceed to become a fetus.

However, instead of implanting the blastocyst into the womb, scientists can remove individual cells (stem cells) which can be grown almost indefinitely under highly specialized conditions to create practically any cells, muscle, nerve, etc. The embryo is sacrificed in the process.

The allure of human embryonic stem cell research is straight-forward – spare parts, treatment for presently incurable diseases, and of course, a cure for paralysis. Preliminary research in paralyzed rats has already demonstrated limited restoration of function. Yet while promising, it is too soon to anticipate a human effect.

Strong advocates like paralyzed actor, Christopher Reeves are no less than infuriated. He commented, “Never before has there been such a powerful tool, such a resource that can give so much hope. And to have it just sitting here right in front of us, ready to go while all this debate rages on, is really, really frustrating.”

Many scientists agree. Some are emigrating abroad to countries like England where regulatory agencies for stem cell research authorize such investigations. The British Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) utilizes public funding to control this controversial technology.

Political advocates in the US are likely to impose what they consider to be sensible restrictions on this research. They contend that many of the 100,000 or so embryos existing in a frozen state in IVF banks are to be discarded based upon the parents’ decision not to proceed. They argue against destroying embryos which could be used to save lives.

This argument certainly makes sense superficially. Yet the real threat here isn’t pure science, or weighing the lesser of the evils. It is human nature.

Opponents of human embryonic stem cell research take the moral position of not destroying life. They also recognize the monetary value of a potentially profitable future market. Whose embryonic cells will become your new muscle, heart or brain cells? How much will people be paid to place that frozen embryo stored in an IVF bank, into the discarded pile, awaiting pick-up by a government or private lab? Who will ensure the source of the embryos and police the integrity of the public and private sectors?

In years to come, will ATF become ATFE (alcohol, tobacco, firearms and embryos)? I’m convinced that controlling this research is inconceivable. I don’t see human embryo detectors in airports in the foreseeable future.

Even without government support, realize the avalanche has already begun and will continue to rage. Government dollars will not make a difference. Remember, the human genome was ultimately deciphered with private funding!
It’s time we stopped kidding ourselves. Selling embryos is likely to become so profitable that it will render the drug trade unattractive by comparison. The reality is that Pandora’s Box is already open, and that world-wide financial interest coupled with evolving science is unstoppable.

Yes … the science is tantalizing. However the destructive element of playing with life has to make us rethink the world that is about emerge from the decisions we make today. As a scientist, I’d love to see cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinsonism and paralysis. Yet I’m also concerned about the future of generations to come.

Words of caution extend to people who are inclined to believe that government can control science. I also caution those who are overconfident about animal research findings. This is especially relevant as I am unaware of any published embryonic stem cell research that has resulted in a human cure. I find it hard to believe that people like Christopher Reeves would not travel to Europe for such a procedure if they were confident it was safe.

Unfortunately the decision to proceed with human embryonic stem cell research is not ours. This issue is presently beyond our control. Brace yourself, this is only the beginning
Mind Over Matter!

©2001 Barry Bittman,
MD all rights reserved

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Written by Barry Bittman MD

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