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When Science Meets Morality: The Embryonic Stem Cell Debate

by Jen (writer), San Fernando Valley, June 11, 2007

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On April 11, 2007 the Senate passed the “Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007” where it now awaits the signature of President Bush. Similar to the bill previously vetoed by Bush, this bill outlines the standards by which human embryonic stem cell research should be conducted, and provides for the derivation of human embryonic stem cell lines from excess embryos generated for the purpose of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). IVF is the process by which donor eggs are fertilized by donor sperm in a Petri dish and allowed to develop for 3-5 days into the developmental stage known as the blastula. Blastocysts derived in this manner are then transplanted into the uterus in the hopes that a productive pregnancy will occur, frozen for future use, or discarded.

From Senate bill S.5:
SEC. 498D. HUMAN EMBRYONIC STEM CELL RESEARCH.
(a) In General- Notwithstanding any other provision of law (including any regulation or guidance), the Secretary shall conduct and support research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells in accordance with this section (regardless of the date on which the stem cells were derived from a human embryo) .
(b) Ethical Requirements- Human embryonic stem cells shall be eligible for use in any research conducted or supported by the Secretary if the cells meet each of the following:
(1) The stem cells were derived from human embryos that have been donated from in vitro fertilization clinics, were created for the purposes of fertility treatment, and were in excess of the clinical need of the individuals seeking such treatment…


Full text of Senate bill S.5: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?c110:2:./temp/~c11063L65d::

Passage of this bill would, in effect, allow for the derivation of new human embryonic stem cell lines. This is crucial to the advancement of embryonic stem cell research as cells maintained in culture are not identical to those residing in the organism. The longer a cell line is maintained in culture the less certain we can be of its similarity to cells found in the organism. Current human embryonic stem cell lines have been in culture for at least six years. In point of fact, researchers at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at UCLA (ISCBM) found that when they induced a federally approved embryonic stem cell line (derived prior to August 2001) to differentiate into neural stem cells these cells displayed abnormally low expression of a gene whose disruption causes hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, in humans. Whether this is a property of the cell line under study or the process used to induce differentiation is under investigation. Dr. Gouping Fan, senior author of the study, published in the journal Human Molecular Genetics, is quoted as saying;

“Stem cells with abnormalities may not effectively treat the diseases they were created to treat, or they may result in secondary problems such as hypoglycemia…Any stem cells that might one day be used for transplantation have to be as close as possible to normal stem cells”.

But, when it comes to what constitutes a “normal stem cell” we have a lot to learn.

The aim of embryonic stem cell research is to elucidate the molecular mechanisms that cue stem cells to divide, self-renew, or differentiate in order to understand the way in which developmental disease and cancer arise. A thorough understanding of these molecular mechanisms is fundamental to the development of cell-based therapies for diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, in which neural stem cells could be transplanted to sites of damaged tissues in the body, induced to differentiate, and repair the damaged neural tissue. A major roadblock to research on embryonic stem cells is the question of morality surrounding the destruction of an IVF embryo that might be adopted by an in-fertile couple for implantation and subsequent pregnancy, to produce what have been unceremoniously dubbed “the snowflake children”. The harsh reality is, the majority of the IVF embryos currently in the freezer will remain in the freezer long past the point of viability and will eventually end up in…that’s right…the garbage.

However, this does not address the question of whether or not we actually need to investigate the biology of embryonic stem cells to achieve said aims. What about those adult somatic stem cells that we keep hearing so much about? A somatic stem cell is an undifferentiated cell that resides in adult tissues, and can give rise to the various cell types that comprise that tissue, for the purpose of tissue maintenance and repair. An example of this process is wound healing. If you accidentally cut yourself shaving you can watch over the course of several days as your body repairs itself. This repair is the work of epithelial stem cells residing in the tissues of your skin that are stimulated to divide and differentiate into new “skin cells” in response to molecular signals generated at the time the injury is incurred. But could these same cells be induced to generate neural tissue? The question can then be modified to ask, can we utilize somatic stem cells in the same manner as we might utilize embryonic stem cells?

Current scientific dogma would suggest that the answer to that question is no. Somatic stem cells differentiate down a more narrow range of lineages than do embryonic stem cells. Furthermore they seem to have a diminished capacity to proliferate and self-renew in-vitro, two hallmarks of stem cell biology. However, opinions within the scientific community differ. Reports of stem-cell plasticity, or the ability of a somatic cell to de-differentiate back to its pluripotent stem cell predecessor, are emerging and the research is sound. It should be noted; however, that evidence for cell plasticity in the organism remains to be shown.

But, what if we could take cells from normal adult tissues and manipulate them so that they behave like ES cells? Another group at the ISCBM was able to show that forced expression of four genes that are essential in ES cells, in cells derived from normal adult mouse tissues, conferred properties that made them indistinguishable from mouse ES cells. While what little we do know about the biology of mouse ES cells and human ES cells suggests that they have a fundamentally different biology, this finding opens wide the door to the possibility that human somatic cells could be used for cell-based therapies. Co-lead author of the study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, Dr. Kathrin Plath is quoted as saying

"If we can recreate this in human cells, it has significant implications for regenerative therapies,".

It is the opinion of this biologist/author that further study of human embryonic stem cells is necessary and must proceed with full support of the United States government and its funding agency’s. I am not alone.

(Excerpt from the American Association for Cancer Research Position statement)

AACR further recognizes that stem cell research encompasses stem cells of many types, and stresses that each facet of stem cell research is in fact complementary - not duplicative. Research on adult stem cells (tissue-specific stem cells found within adults) may uncover the body’s innate maintenance and repair mechanisms. This area of research includes important classes of blood-forming stem cells, such as the hematopoietic stem cells resident within bone marrow or the umbilical cord blood stem cells harvested at childbirth, as well as emerging studies of cancer stem cells. Embryonic stem cells (unspecialized stem cells found within very early stage embryos called blastocysts) have the ability to transform into the cells of every major organ system. If this characteristic, called pluripotency, can be controlled, then medical researchers could determine the signals directing the development of human tissues, including cancers.

Full text of the statement here

So, is human ES cell research necessary? I think so, but it is up to each individual to decide for themselves if it is a cause worth taking up the torch for. Is allowing an in-vitro fertilized embryo to live on as a cell line so as to further our knowledge of human development and disease progression immoral? Furthermore, is in-vitro fertilization an act of “playing god” in and of itself? I have no easy answers. But…these are questions best considered by ones own self and his or her god.


http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/basics1.asp
http://newsroom.ucla.edu/page.asp?RelNum=8015
http://www.iscbm.ucla.edu/Fan060726.htm


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Jen is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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19 comments on When Science Meets Morality: The Embryonic Stem Cell Debate

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By Kay C on June 11, 2007 at 09:31 pm
Thanks for the article:) The right wing religious block are so funny (if not so sad). They don't even believe in what they claim to believe in - Thou Shalt not Kill???? Yeah right...right after the war-mongering, honey. If Jesus did retrun, he'd be mocked as a sandle-wearing, Earth-loving, granola crunching, tree-hugging hippie. The religious right as a political group has zero moral credibililty for people with a hypocrisy detector or a love of peace for ALL!! As Ghandi said, "I love your Christ, just not your Christians."
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By Steven Lane on June 12, 2007 at 12:35 am
Holy Jesus......Reza, you stole my response. Great informative article.
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By Kay C on June 12, 2007 at 01:36 am
And how odd it was that the masters of war always thought they wore white hats.
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By Kay C on June 12, 2007 at 02:33 am
Yes, El G, the face of facism is very ugly indeed. Invading nations illegally in the name of radical patriotism - not pretty (can your mind even grasp the parallels??) Nor is threatening to nuke countries who may want nukes, nuking cities of civilians in the name of REVENGE, and then glorifying all of it and wrapping it in a HEROIC/GOOD GUY bow so that we can all sleep at night. You and I may never be on the same page El G, so why bother with the boring and predictable banter?? We speak from radically different levels of awareness - you are "us versus them" and I am not. Instead, I hope for the continuation of the entire species, for ALL children - not just those born here, knowing that despite the illusion, we really are all ONE... we may never all get to that understanding El G - and so your only accurate critique of me is that... I am a hopeless idealist.
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By Charles Harmison on June 12, 2007 at 05:39 am
Being someone who could benefit from stem cell therapy I have a huge bias for this issue. That said, I can see what shocks the religious right so much. When it comes to using aborted fetuses to fix my back broken in a car accident, im still on the fence, and thus unwilling to proceed with the therapy. Not that i could afford any procedures anyway. One thing is certain if i did do the treatment the fact that Georgie vetoed it here wouldn't stop me from getting the therapy. It happened to the Islamic empire in 800 AD, it happened in Japan in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and now its happening here. Scientific achievement completely stunted because of spiritual zealotry. China and India will rule the world in 50 years because they'll have invented the cure for _______________. And we will have to pay whatever they ask to get it. Just wait you'll see, if your lucky enough to live long enough.
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By Jen on June 12, 2007 at 03:13 pm
To everyone that wrote me such nice reviews and comments- Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I thoroughly enjoyed writing it :) Reza/Steven- I wholeheartedly agree with you guys. But, allow me to play the devils advocate for a moment. Biomedical research undertaken for the purpose of saving lives could just as easily be used to create weapons of mass destruction by weaponization of pathogens. I’m sure annihilation of Hiroshima was the furthest thing from the minds of Oppenheimer and his colleagues when they were investigating fission. I’m not sure how a stem cell could be weaponized but that doesn’t mean it couldn't be or that there aren’t people that would spend billions of dollars trying to figure that out. Charles- Thanks for your comment. I thank you because you perfectly illustrate one of the reasons I wanted to write this piece in the first place. Firstly, being that the media portrays somatic stem cells as an alternative that renders ES cell research pointless and unnecessary. I wanted to shed some light on that fallacy. SECOND- please show me where in my article I refer to harvesting cells from an aborted fetus. I know I didn’t write that because that is NOT where ES cells come from. This is exactly the kind of emotional language that distorts the reality of what ES cell research is and hopes to accomplish. Allow me to assuage your fears. The majority of women that choose to terminate an un-wanted pregnancy do not find out about said pregnancy until week 4-6 of gestation (when they fail to menstruate). This is WELL past the stage of development from which ES cells would be harvested. Therefore aborted fetuses are of little use for ES cell research. I refer you to a great single-post blog that sums up what I just said in a snarky “See spot run” fashion. http://scientocracy.blogspot.com/ . Sorry if I come off as snippy here, I’ve enjoyed your past pieces, but I have to wonder if you actually read the article here or just the comments… Bill- I just deleted my comments about hypocrisy because you said it better than I would have. To address your questions; if I could re-write this I would take that last sentence out. I cringe every time I read it. Allow me to flesh out my other thoughts. I think most people, particularly those that don’t believe in, or don’t think much about God, don’t have a problem with IVF as a fertility treatment. Nor do they have a problem with using excess IVF embryos for sound biomedical research. What I cannot make heads or tails of in my head are the people that have absolutely no problem committing the sin of Pride (holding self out of proper position toward God) by hijacking his claim on the territory of creation by “creating life” in a dish and then using “thou shalt not kill” to justify not using these embryos to save life that is already here. It’s maybe the one thing the Catholic Church is consistent on. They oppose anything that artificially effects human propagation, including IVF.
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By Kay C on June 12, 2007 at 04:27 pm
Bill - yes, of course, hypocrisy is a very VERY human trait, but particularly stark (and dangerous) when it comes from those people who base POLICY on their "love" of Jesus, and then ignore everything he ever stood for...or worse, enact the opposite.
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By Jen on June 12, 2007 at 05:51 pm
I noticed that too El G. I believe this is simply and indication that people are more worried, in general, about a war that more and more people have come to believe is/was pointless and unnecessary than they are about the possibility that maybe somewhere in the murky future we could cure Parkinson’s disease. Whatever your feeling on that, our situation in Iraq is the more pressing issue if you think of it in those terms. Aside from that, I find this to be an interesting comment coming from you. Most of us that comment have made an off-topic comment here and there, but aren’t you the godfather of pointless off-topic diatribe here at Broowaha? Your first comment was on point and addressed the topic of the article. On the other hand, of the 13 comments on this article 7 of them are from you and KC. Of those, 5 of them are simply a re-hash of the same old hippies vs. the establishment straw-man argument laden banter I’ve seen on so many other articles. So…what are you trying to say here?
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By Kay C on June 12, 2007 at 06:52 pm
I have always vigorously supported stem cell research. Also, kudos to you, Jen, for expanding my understanding of the process. My apologies to you for not making that clear in the first place.
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By Miss Sam on June 12, 2007 at 08:06 pm
Great article Jen. I think that we run a great risk when we completely disassociate morality from any human venture. I'm not saying that anyone is advocating that, but the reality is that there is always a certain amount of morality (an inherently subjective quality) that must come into play during the creative/investigative processes that define modern science.
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By Jen on June 12, 2007 at 08:23 pm
Maybe so El. Maybe my article IS completely bland and devoid of value and should be placed in the garbage along with past-date IVF embryos and your golden nuggets of wisdom are the sole reason anyone is looking at either of my articles. Hell...they're the reason anyone looks at anything around here. But, just so we can be clear. While I've read some pretty funny comments from you I'm not a big fan of your particular brand of "sparkle", and in the majority of cases the subsequent comments they inspire do nothing to intelligently further the debate/discussion. If anything...I feel they detract from the work on which you make them. And now they, along with my responses to you, have detracted from mine.
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By Jen on June 12, 2007 at 08:31 pm
Thanks Miss Sam. I really like your work too! I agree with you. Morality is subjective as well as ever changing. I mean...we laugh now, but in the 19th century physicians were demonized and jailed for wanting to cut up cadavers to see whats under the skin. Women were FULLY CLOTHED during physical exams...and we've all seen what those women wore...was it 5 or 6 lbs. of underwear? All under the guise of morality. Thanks for you comment!
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By Charles Harmison on June 13, 2007 at 01:45 am
Jen- First off, WOW!! I am seriously impressed with your tolerance of MR. G's unbelievably arrogant comment. I tip my hat to you for your ability to maintain calm and respectful while he spouts off his god awful rants. Leave alone your article which whatever he said i felt was very informative and well written and inspirational for all this discussion. I don't really read his words anymore i just skim them and believe me he had nothing to do with making me speak up. I am sorry to have brought up the embryonic stem cells with regard to my condition it was not out of misrepresenting your words and your article which i am well aware you did not say, but rather I brought it up for two reasons. One because it IS the embryonic cells that force people to cringe at the entire science which seemed to me to be thrust of your article. Second, i should have specified, that back injury stem cell treatment unlike disease treatment which you mention has not shown the positive results from adult stem cells that treatment of disease has. At least from what i have been told. For the treatment of spinal injuries because of the specific properties of embryonic stem cells there are no alternatives to fetal tissue. There is know other way to get fetal tissue, I'm afraid, other than from fetuses whether frozen in storage or freshly aborted. I appreciate your words about my articles and i don't think the blog is snippy. In fact i completely agree with u, I am pro-choice, and i don't want to destroy the tissue by just throwing it away. I think u misunderstood me and i only meant to say that this is the rare case where i can actually see where the nut jobs on the religious right are coming from. It still doesn't mean they are right. I just wanted to point out that once in a while their opinion actually has a shred of coherence. And i didn't mean to detract from your main point in doing so.
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By Charles Harmison on June 13, 2007 at 01:47 am
Reza - The next sentence
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By Charles Harmison on June 13, 2007 at 01:54 am
Oh and in vitro fertilized fetuses are no different than those fertilized in the womb as those people alive today that were created by this means will testify. An abortion of the cell division whether in the dish or in the womb is considered the same to those of the Pro-Life agenda. Just to further clarify I'm sure people will be even less comfortable with fetal farms of petri dish grown ES cells, then they would of using the wasted tissue that is being destroyed otherwise.
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By Jen on June 13, 2007 at 05:06 pm
Reza...you are toooooo funny. But yeah...how many times can an author hear that their work is appreciated. Im all on board for complimenting good work from people I'd like to see more from...even if it is a bit redundant. BTW. Did I happen to mention how much I enjoy your work.... :)
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By Rachel Eagle Reiter on February 11, 2008 at 12:56 pm

Hi Jen,

I just became your broowaha friend, so I have not begun reading your enlightening articles--until now. 

The last line in section C is key for anybody on the fence about stem cell research.  Yes, it's a really touchy topic.  Yes, human life is sacred.  Even the life of a 'wombaby' is priceless.  But what we are dealing with here are stem cells that would otherwise be thrown in the trash:  Do we feel as though they are better off in the garbage than in the hands of scientists?  I surely hope not.  I also believe that very much good can come out of the research: cures for diseases, like you mentioned.  I feel as though it is also important to keep in mind the spiritual saying: All things work together for good.

Now, I will address the hypocrisy of Not allowing for stem-cell research.  On one hand, partial birth abortion is legal, and on the other hand, stem cell research is not legal?  Life is a mystery.  Even the wisest of Spiritualists and Philosophers do not fully grasp how the spirit enters the body, yet even a small child can see that there is more life in an eight or nine month old wombaby, than there is in a stem cell.  Let's just see how inane this is.... 

Stem cells are granted the sactity of life...  

while fully developed wombabies are treated as trash?

Rachel Eagle Reiter   

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By Rachel Eagle Reiter on February 11, 2008 at 01:05 pm

El G,

Your arrogance is rather disgusting, and I'm pretty sure that the number of readers Jen has will not be critically affected by you.  But go ahead and pat yourself on the back if it makes you feel better!

Love,

Rachel

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By Jen on February 11, 2008 at 03:33 pm

Hi Rachel,

We have actually had this debate in class this quarter.  Time and again the argument that since abortion is legal we should be able to dissociate a blastocyst to make a new stem cell line.  Now...I agree with both the sentiment and the logic, however most of the people that would not want a blastocyst dissociated also do not believe abortion should be legal therefore the argument fails.  What is really ridiculous to me is the whole IVF thing.  There are simply too many left-over embryos to be adopting out so these people really would rather see this "life" get thrown in the garbage than be used to find cures that might save lifes that are actually living and breathing on this planet.  Can you imagine the population problems we would have if we actually did adopt out all of those embryos?  The whole disconnect honestly baffles me.

Thanks for the comment!

P.S.  El G and I buried the hatchet quite some time ago.

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