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The Truth Behind Stem Cells: Let’s Sort It Out

JCWillke   |   November 01, 2001

The entire stem cell debate suddenly ceased with the New York disaster, but it will be back. After six months of intense media hype, President Bush issued his statement which canceled Clinton’s earlier order. It set guidelines. Further, he stated he would veto any significant change made by Congress. Reactions to Bush’s “solution” were mixed. Complimenting it without reservation was the National Right to Life Committee.

Complimenting it with reservations included Dr. Dobson, Drs. Falwell, Robertson and others. Critical of it were Concerned Women for America, the Catholic Conference, Family Research Council, Life Issues Institute, Life Dynamics and others. Judging it purely from a pragmatic political standpoint, it was a very clever and wise statement. It gave just enough and yet stood firmly enough that it will not be overridden by Congress and almost certainly will stand. If he had gone significantly further right, it might have been overridden and we’d have potentially lost everything.

Judging it from an ethical standpoint, however, I found it inadequate. Certainly we all blessed him for a specific stand against new killing. But to experiment on those who had already been killed, moves it beyond our ethical standards. All of this, at the moment, is water under the bridge, so let’s examine the issue of stem cells.

First, one observation. Through all the dreary 30 years of abortion controversy, the argument has centered about surgical abortion. In recent years that argument has been extended to surgical abortion in late term, but at no point has the discussion fully engaged the question of human life in the first week. This had been grappled with a bit through discussion about emergency contraceptive pills, the action of the IUD, etc., but it had not captured public attention and really had not been central to the arguments being waged. This has changed.

We have now witnessed six long months of intense media exposure focusing on the first week of life. Let’s assume that many people were enlightened for the first time, recognized this as human life and would support us in defending it from the first cell stage. Recognize also that many people have probably not been convinced and would not join us. Be this as it may, the sum total of these six months has certainly been to enlighten and to bolster pro-life conviction that human life exists at fertilization. This has been largely a win/win situation for the pro-life movement, for its end result certainly has been that many people have joined us in this conviction, whereas its result for others, at the least, was to throw some doubt on their position that human life did not exist this early.

It’s clear to any observer that the media hype all went in one direction. It approved of embryonic stem cell research and largely ignored adult stem cell research. Let’s remember that this was not about whether either type of research would be done, for both are entirely legal, if private funds are used. The debate was about whether or not federal funds would be appropriated for one or the other type of research. Are you aware that there are 15 major companies now engaged in stem cell research? Have you heard that 13 out of the 15 are pursuing adult stem cell research, with only two being involved in embryonic stem cells? These companies are using private funds. In the language of the financial world, they have obtained venture capital. Venture capitalists have no particular ethical agenda. Their goal is to make money. If they see embryonic projects that they judge to be likely to come to fruition and bear fruit over the next few years (venture capitalists usually anticipate 5 to 7 years), then such private money will fund this research. The fact that there is very little private money being invested in embryonic stem cell research speaks rather loudly. It speaks against embryo stem cell research, but it tells us one other thing. Since embryonic cell research has not attracted venture capital, this may well be the reason why scientists are trying so desperately to get their hands on federal funds.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Aside from the lack of venture capital because of lack of promising research to finance, one fact stands out continued on page 4. glaringly. That is that embryonic stem cells have not cured a single disease. They have not yet saved a single life. Embryonic research is still very much on the drawing board. We are being told it has vast potential, but to date none of that has been realized, and as noted, there is not that much serious research that has yet been funded. So the benefits of embryonic cells, at this point, can be only described as pure speculation.

Several reasons have been offered for embryonic stem cell advantages. One has been that they are easier to harvest, but this is a non-problem. Scientists have been extracting adult stem cells for more than a decade. Another is that there are more of them. Again, this is a claim that cannot be substantiated in the presence of the huge numbers of stem cells available from cord blood and other sources. In addition, biotech companies have now developed proprietary methods that make adult stem cell isolation and extraction quite simple. Adult stem cells have been found in virtually every major organ of the body. These include bone marrow, blood, brain, dental pulp, spinal cord, muscle, skin, the GI tract, pancreas, umbilical cord and placenta, human fat, liver and others.

The main advantage listed for embryonic stem cells is that they are more plastic, that they are easier to change into the wanted specific adult cell. This advantage, if they ever had it, is being rapidly eroded, for adult stem cells have been transformed into cartilage, muscle, bone, nerve cells, liver, heart cells, blood vessels and almost certainly will shortly be transformed into kidney, lung, intestine and central nervous system cells. Adult stem cell biology is advancing at an incredible rate, as advances are occurring literally every month.

There are negatives for embryonic cells. One is their very plasticity and the possible inability to control what type of cell they change into. The major worry of scientists in working with embryonic cells is the possibility of wild, undifferentiated growth. We call these tumors. There is one well-publicized case of a death from tumor formation when such treatment was used on a Parkinson’s patient in China. The other major publicized development in treating Parkinsonism was the wild growth of implanted cells in the brain causing irreversible and totally disabling involuntary movements on the part of the patient.

Another negative on the embryonic cell side is that they could carry viruses, even HIV or other infections. The threat also looms that these would not be totally compatible with the recipient and that anti-rejection chemicals would be needed to prevent rejection of the cells.

Adult Stem Cells
Adult stem cells have a fairly lengthy proven track record. Here are a few examples. The Journal Nature reported that British scientists found that adult stem cells in bone marrow could turn into liver tissue. Obviously, this is a major step toward treating liver disease.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that surgeons in Taiwan have restored vision to patients using stem cells from the patients’ own eyes. The Journal Science reported on two studies showing that adult stem cells from bone marrow transplanted into the brains of mice can develop into nerve cells. This had been shown as possible in the cultured cells, but now it has been done in a living animal. The Journal Nature again reported that adult stem cells from bone marrow injected into damaged mouse hearts became functional heart muscle cells, partly restoring the ability of the heart to pump. Human trials are expected soon.

Overall, hundreds, perhaps thousands of patients have already been treated using their own adult stem cells. A host of treated diseases have included liver, autoimmune diseases, cartilage and bone damage, reversal of diabetes, repair of hearts, cancers, stroke, and the list is long. All of this, incidentally, has been done by private venture capital, and all of it is continuing apace.

One of the arguments has been that these are excess embryos who would be discarded (killed). These were created by in vitro fertilization, are now in the deep freeze, and could help humanity if allowed to be used for research. This is not as clear as has been claimed, for one study has shown that 59% of parents who had originally intended to discard their embryos, changed their minds within three years. In place of killing the embryos, they tried for another pregnancy or donated their embryos to another couple. The whole concept of what is known as “snowflake embryo adoption” has caught the public attention and the number of requests to adopt embryos has soared.

We agree with the statement issued by the US National Institutes of Health which said, “Any therapies based on the use of human embryonic stem cells are still hypothetical and highly experimental.” If and when such cells demonstrate some viable promise of cure of human illnesses, it seems obvious that private venture capital will be available to pursue such research, sad as that would be. Just as obviously, such funds are not available at the moment. We must repeat the judgment of the Wall Street Journal, Europe, which said that “the market is speaking so loudly against embryonic stem cell research that it probably explains why embryo researchers are so eager to reverse the ban on government funding.” A similar comment was made by Forbes Financial Magazine (9-3-01, p. 32), again viewing it from a purely financial standpoint: “Private research money has gone overwhelmingly to non-embryo stem cell research. This is one reason embryo researchers want to get their hands on federal funds.”

Back to the bottom line, it is a simple, proven, medical fact that human life, in its totality, exists at that first cell stage. Furthermore, it is a medical fact that if the blastocyst stage is dissected and embryonic stem cells removed, you have killed one tiny living human to obtain those cells. This is quite simply killing one innocent living human in an attempt to find cures to save others. This hearkens back to Nazi doctors who pleaded the same rationale in the Nuremberg trials at the end of the war. That argument was not accepted, and some of those doctors were hanged for doing to Jews what current researchers now want to do to human embryos.

The pro-life movement may well have reacted in a mixed manner to President Bush’s solution, but there is no confusion in the pro-life movement as to the bottom line. You simply should not, cannot, kill one living human in an attempt to help another.

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