Although the ethical debate concerning the use of stem cells has taken a back seat to news coverage and public outcry, the cloning of a human embryo in South Korea, with the purpose of generating embryonic stem cells, has once again pushed stem cell research into the spotlight.
This ongoing research has once again rekindled the debate about whether fertilized embryos are a living human fetus and whether they should be used to generate stem cells to help scientists devise remedies and therapies for people afflicted with degenerative diseases.
The thorny debate has even aroused the interest of USF students on both sides of the fence. An organization was recently formed on the USF campus to help educate people about stem cells and their benefits.
The USF Student Society for Stem Cell Research was formed at the beginning of the year. According to Joe Riggs, head of the SSSCR at USF, said the organization hopes to promote research for use in regenerative medicine for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, HIV, Sickle Cell Anemia, heart disease and spinal cord injury.
“I started (SSSCR) because of how much misinformation there is and how the opponents of stem cell research are distorting the facts,” Riggs said. “I developed a great empathy for people who this research could help. There are more than 100 million Americans that can benefit from stem cell research and potential cures.”
Riggs said one of the key arguments is the clarification of the idea that all stem cells are taken from dead fetuses. The SSSCR only advocates the use of embryonic stem cells taken from four–to seven-day-old fertilized embryos, Riggs said.
Although the USF Society for Stem Cell Research is a new group, USF has been involved with stem cell research for several years. USF has also built a strong international reputation as a leader in the translational use of potential stem cell and other cellular therapeutics. USF continues to be a pioneer in the fetal tissue transplant field and has two U.S. programs funded by the National Institute of Health. USF was also the first to demonstrate that a human neural clonal cell line could help in a stroke animal model.
The H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, which is affiliated with USF, is also a leader in novel stem cell therapies for cancer patients, with a strong program in hematopoietic stem cell research and transplantation.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the unique ability to repair damaged tissue. The two broadest classes of stem cells are commonly known as adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. All stem cells show a varying degree of plasticity, the inherent flexibility in the type of tissue that the stem cells can become, which is dependent on the type of stem cell used.
There are confirmed sources of stem cells in adult tissue, such as bone marrow, that maintain the ability to alter into diverse cell types of different tissue throughout the life of an organism. Recent research has also shown there may be other sources of adult stem cells in the body, such as the brain, skin, muscles and liver, said William Kerr, an associate professor of Interdisciplinary Oncology at USF and Moffitt and is part of the Newman Scholar of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
However, cells that maintain the ability to divide and differentiate into more specialized cells of different types of tissue are rare in the adult. Adult stem cells are multipotent, meaning they are restricted in the type of tissue they can become, hard to maintain in the lab, rare and difficult to isolate.
“Because they are adult cells, they may not have the same ability or the same growth potential as a fetal or embryonic stem cell,” Kerr said.
Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are pluripotent, meaning the cells can be coaxed into becoming any type of tissue in the body. These cells have not become differentiated yet, so they have not associated themselves with any particular type of body tissue. Embryonic stem cells can be found in umbilical cords as well as in fertilized or cloned embryos.
The SSSCR supports the use of embryonic stem cells from embryos in two ways, — in-vitro fertilization and Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT).
In in-vitro fertilization, a couple who has trouble conceiving a child through normal means goes to a IVF clinic and donates both eggs and sperm. The eggs donated are fertilized in the clinic and are then placed inside a freezer until they are to be inserted into the womb. If the procedure is unsuccessful, it is often repeated. In some cases, not all of the donated embryos are used. These fertilized embryos sit in a freezer until they are used by the couple or are eventually thrown out.
“A couple in a fertility clinic will have to fertilize more than one egg, because the hormone therapy that the female undergoes is stressful. So, instead of going through multiple treatments to get a successful implantation they fertilize more than one egg at a time,” Riggs said. “There are excess embryos that are going to be thrown away, so what scientists say is that since you are going to throw the IVF embryos away, why not use them for science?”
Another method used to obtain embryonic stem cells is Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer or therapeutic cloning. This technique involves taking an egg cell that has had its nucleus removed and replacing it with the nucleus of a patient’s somatic cell, or a cell with the full genetic information, such as a skin cell. Once the complete set of DNA from a somatic cell nucleus is inserted into the egg cell, it can then begin to divide and differentiate. After four to seven days, the embryo is in the blastocyst stage. This stage occurs just before the cells in the embryo begin to divide and differentiate into different types of tissue. It is at this stage that stem cells can be taken. This technique also creates stem cells that contain only the patient’s genetic information. SCNT is unique in that it provides transplantable stem cells that will avoid tissue rejection. It was also the type of procedure used to clone Dolly the sheep.
“The advantage of these stem cells is that they now contain the genetic make-up of whoever donated the nucleus from the adult cell. So theoretically, a patient in need of stem cell therapy can donate the nucleus from one of his cells and receive stem cells with his genetic makeup. This is advantageous because his body won’t reject the stem cell therapy,” Riggs said.
The other side of the coin
But, not all people feel the same way about stem cell research. One organization that opposes the use of stem cell research involving embryonic stem cells is the Center for Bioethical Reform. The organization was on campus last month depicting 25-foot photos of aborted fetuses on the sides of trucks in order to educate people about the real horrors associated with abortion, according to Mark Harrington, the executive director of the group.
“The argument that life begins at conception is a settled issue. There are very few embryologists or biologists that would say otherwise. We are in the year 2004. We are beyond the question of when life begins. It begins at the beginning. It begins when 23 chromosomes from the male combine with 23 chromosomes from the female to make a human being,” said Harrington.
The organization’s goal, according to Harrington, is to “establish prenatal justice and the right to life for the unborn, the disabled, the infirm, the aged and all vulnerable people through education and development of cutting edge educational resources.”
Harrington said he and his organization are against the use of embryonic stem cells in any form, whether it be through IVF or through SCNT.
“The interesting thing with embryonic stem cell research is that there is still an open question as to whether it’s necessary. So this rush to harvest embryonic stem cells is likely not even necessary,” Harrington said.
Harrington also said he refers to the use of stem cells from therapeutic cloning as cloning to kill.
“In the case of therapeutic cloning, we are cloning a human being to extract stem cells from the embryo, but they neglect to say that when they extract the stem cells that they kill the embryo,” Harrington said. “In our opinion that is immoral and unethical and should be banned.”
Harrington said that the quintessential question of both abortion and stem cell research is, “Is the unborn a human person or not?”
“An embryo is a human being, that’s the bottom line. Whether he’s being stored in some in-vitro fertilization facility or if you discard them, then you are killing a human being. If you extract stem cells after cloning a person then you have killed them,” Harrington said.
Politics and the future of stem cell research
Although the future of stem cell research is unknown at this point, it may not get far in the United States due to a restriction placed on federal funding for stem cell research by President Bush in 2001. Because of the ethical debate that has surrounded stem cell research, President Bush restricted federal funding to the pre-existing 60 stem cell lines that existed before the cut off date in 2001.
“This research is in its infancy (stage) and it’s at the basic research stage and in order for the research to progress to clinical applications you have to have federal funding for universities to carry out this research,” Riggs said. “Private companies may put some money into it, but they are not going to put money into something that might take 10 to 15 years to develop.”
The 60 pre-existing lines of stem cell research that are still being funded are based on embryonic stem cells taken from various sources over the years. These stem cells last almost indefinitely because they are self regenerating, but as they age they can begin to differentiate into different tissue, Kerr said.
Bush also put together a council to monitor stem cell research to recommend appropriate guidelines and regulations and to consider all of the medical and ethical ramifications of biomedical innovation.
Addressing the nation concerning stem cell research, Bush said, “the United States has a long and proud record of leading the world toward advances in science and medicine that improve human life. And the United States has a long and proud record of upholding the highest standards of ethics as we expand the limits of science and knowledge. Research on embryonic stem cells raises profound ethical questions, because extracting the stem cell destroys the embryo, and thus destroys its potential for life. Like a snowflake, each of these embryos is unique, with the unique genetic potential of an individual human being.
“As I thought through this issue, I kept returning to two fundamental questions: First, are these frozen embryos human life, and therefore, something precious to be protected? And second, if they’re going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn’t they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?”
While President Bush implemented his restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research, other countries such as South Korea, China and Singapore, are going ahead full steam with stem cell research. In November 2003, Singapore unveiled “Biopolis,” a $287 million government biotech center focused on stem cell research and South Korea has even succeeded in becoming the first to clone a human embryo for the purpose of gathering master stem cells from it.
What do students say about stem cells?
The stem cell debate is happening not only in courtrooms, churches and laboratories but also on university campuses and in classrooms around the country. Students from USF had differing opinions on the use of stem cells.
Ryan Barnett and Brittany Graham, both undergraduates in biology, said they both supported stem cell research, but not methods which involved cloning, such as SCNT.
“If it (embryo from IVF) is going to be thrown out, it might as well go to help people. I think it’s the only way that we are going to be able to study things, like different diseases,” Graham said.
“I think it’s promising. If it (embryo) is going to waste, I say use it,” Barnett said.
Frank Harrison,0j2 a freshman, said he has no problem with stem cell research, but he did not support the use of embryonic stem cells.
“Overall, if it is fertilized, it’s a life. I have no problem with them using stem cells from umbilical cords or bone marrow. I’m not against the science but at what price?” Harrison said.
Brett Roberson, an undergraduate in English, said he supports stem cell research because it may lead to some promising therapies that can be used to help people.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s killing a life. I feel that if (the research) is going to a real cause, it’s alright. I have a friend who can’t walk, so if that helped him it would be great,” Roberson said.