Stem cell research has either been glorified as the miraculous, cure-all treatment or devalued as a promoter for the death of embryos, but this controversy is not merely a two-sided coin.
Maureen Condic, an associate professor from the University of Utah, said this issue is more than the patient’s rights versus the embryo’s rights; it’s about weighing the potential problems of using embryonic stem cells over their advantages.
“All research, including (that of) embryonic stem cells, must be evaluated on multiple levels,” Condic said in a presentation to about 20 members of the Fort Collins and CSU communities Thursday afternoon.
These levels are based on science, practicality and ethics, which encompass the advantages and disadvantages, the financial gain and costs and its risk to humans.
Stem cells, which Condic called “immortal,” are unspecialized cells that reproduce without restraint. The temptation to use these cells arises from scientists’ ability to induce them to become any cell type of their choosing.
But Condic outlined numerous concealed setbacks concerning embryonic stem cells. The most basic being that researchers have to obtain embryonic cells either by killing zygotes or harvesting the cells from those already dead.
She alluded to the organ donor analogy the Bush administration used when discerning whether the government should fund embryonic stem cell research.
“‘You wouldn’t go out and kill people for their organs, would you?'” Condic said, quoting Bush.
The Bush administration used this reasoning to restrict government-funded stem cell research to only cells that were taken from already-dead embryos, she said.
Although restricted through government funding, it’s not illegal in America, unlike in Germany, to perform embryonic experiments using private funds.
But obtaining the cells is only the first hurdle. Studies show that once the cells are inserted into the animal subjects, they are unstable and can turn cancerous. Some become benign tumors and others deadly.
Even one transferred cell has a significant risk of tumor formation, she said.
One study, which looked at retinal disease, used embryonic stem cells and grafted them into mice eyes. Eight weeks later, tumors were detected in 50 percent of the subjects’ eyes.
Condic said scientists suggest further developing cells because more mature cells are less likely to turn cancerous. This theory was quickly curtailed because it’s physically impossible to monitor each cell’s state of maturity, Condic said, because the cells, like kids, “have their own minds.”
Another mounting problem is the body categorizes the cells as foreign objects. The immune system’s response is to annihilate anything “infected” with these cells – including vital organs.
One proposed solution is cloning human cells, but it’s very difficult and inefficient, Condic said.
“You start out with 1,000 clones and maybe only one will survive to birth.”
Cloned cells also have a risk of abnormality.
Condic proposed that researchers could harvest general, adult body cells/and transform or revert these cells into pleuripotent cells, cells that can be induced to become any cell type.
The other option is to harvest adult stem cells from marrow, skin or fat.
Both methods are valid because they are patient-specific and the cells cannot become cancerous.
An experiment in which mice affected with sickle cell anemia were injected with the pleuripotent adult cells proved effective and cured the ailment in the mice.
Plus, Condic claims reverting adult cells into pleuripotent cells is quite simple.
“This is something I could get a high school student to do,” she said.
But although she said embryonic stem cell research does come with a cost, Condic does not completely disagree with the experimental procedure. She wants the public to know the true risks.
“Offering patients a false hope is not compassionate . we need to sell research to the public honestly,” Condic said.
Matt Robinson, a graduate student in health and exercise science, is against the use of embryonic stem cells in research. He said he felt Condic’s presentation shown new light on a highly debated moral issue and that her points “get away from the media hype.”
Staff writer Lauren Leete can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.