USF lecturer stems ethical qualms about stem cell research

Stem cell research is one of the most promising areas of science in recent years. Sadly, it is also one of the most controversial topics due to ethical problems that some areas of the research bring along with it. Monday, Paul Sanberg, director of USF’s Center for Aging and Brain Repair, gave a lecture in the Phyllis P. Marshall Center Ballroom that indicated how the research could be pursued while overcoming such ethical dilemmas. It is clear that due to the promising aspects stem cell research has to offer, the topic should not be abandoned.

Most organisms start their life cycle as a single stem cell that then divides, forming more and more cells that then become particular cells in the newly forming organism. Stem cells can therefore, in theory, replace any other cell and offer a carte blanche to fight many diseases and illnesses that result from or cause cell damage.

Applications for such cells are, by its nature, virtually limitless. However, Sanberg said some fields where data had been gathered already indicated promising results. Patients with spinal cord injuries or any sort of brain damage ranging from strokes to Alzheimer’s disease could benefit from stem cells that often can be administered intravenously and do not even require risky or expensive surgery.

The main problem, apart from the fact that any such research is still in its infancy, is the source of such stem cells. Past research projects have relied on aborted fetuses as their main source, which naturally leads to heated controversy.

But newer projects investigate other sources that offer less ethically volatile methods of getting the sought-after cells. Sanberg said, for example, that umbilical cords could be used to extract stem cells after a baby is born at no risk to either mother or child. He even suggested that it was theoretically possible to extract stem cells from a patient’s own blood, then use them to cure whatever ailment the patient has, stressing that such ideas are “sci-fi at this point,” but could be reality within a decade or two.

Once the hot button that has been built into the topic is defused, this area of research will no doubt expand quickly. As an attending colleague of Sanberg put it, “It’s the pharmaceutical revolution of our generation.” And with people like Sanberg at USF, it seems that the university has a prime position in this field.