Embryonic stem cells:
An embryonic stem cell is a primitive type of cell that can be coaxed into developing into most of the 220 types of cells found in the human body (e.g. blood cells, heart cells, nerve cells, brain cells, etc). Some researchers regard them as offering the greatest potential for the alleviation of human suffering since the development of antibiotics. Over 100 million Americans and two billion other humans worldwide suffer from diseases that may eventually be treated more effectively with stem cells or even cured. These include heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Stem cells can be extracted from very young human embryos -- typically from surplus frozen embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures at fertility clinics.
A couple undergoing IVF is faced with four alternatives for their 16 or so surplus embryos:
There are very few parents willing to give their embryos to another couple for a variety of emotional reasons. There are very few couples willing to receive them for emotional reasons and because thawed embryos have a lowered chance of starting a pregnancy. Preservation can be expensive. So most ask that they be discarded.
There are currently hundreds of thousands of surplus embryos in clinics. One source estimated that there were 400,000 stored embryos by mid-2003, and that the number is increasing. 3 However, a minority of pro-lifers and a majority of pro-life organizations object to the use of embryos in research. They feel that a few-days-old embryo is an actual human person. Extracting its stem cells kills the embryo -- an act that they consider to be murder. Stem cells can now be grown in the laboratory, so (in a pinch) some research can be done using existing stem cells. No further harvesting needs to be made from embryos. However, stem cell lines gradually degrade and new stem cells need to be harvested for research to continue.
Government research using embryonic stem cells has been authorized in Britain, but was initially prohibited in the U.S. by the Dickey Amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services, & Education Appropriations Act of 1996. That amendment banned the use of federal funds for research that created embryos for research purposes or that damaged or destroyed embryos. President Clinton signed that act into law. 5
On 2001-AUG-9, President George W. Bush decided to allow stem cell research in government labs, but restricted researchers to use only 72 existing lines of stem cells. By 2003-MAY, most of these lines had become useless. Only 22 remained by mid-2006, and many of them were of limited usefulness because of DNA damage or contamination.
Embryonic stem cell research has always been allowed in private labs in the U.S. However, there is little private money available because investors typically require a quick return on their investment. They are unwilling to wait for decades to see a profit. Research also continues in both government and private labs in the UK, Canada, Japan, France, Australia, and other countries.
On 2002-SEP, Governor Davis of California signed bill SB 253 into law. It is the first law in the U.S. that permits extensive embryonic stem cell research. Davis simultaneously signed a bill that permanently bans all human cloning in the state for reproduction purposes -- i.e. any effort to create a cloned individual.
Former president Ronald Reagan died from Alzheimer's during 2004-JUN. It is a slow, lingering disease that took a decade to kill him. Nancy Reagan her entire family, except for Michael Reagan, mounted a campaign to encourage President Bush to relax restrictions on embryo stem cell research. Fifty-eight senators, almost all Democrats, sent a letter to President Bush, urging the same action. The effort failed.
A federal bill passed the House on 2005-MAY-24 to allow government funded research on embryonic stem cells extracted from surplus embryos in fertility clinics. It was later passed by the Senate. President Bush vetoed it on ethical grounds -- the first veto of his presidency. President Obama promised to support embryonic stem cell research during his 2008 campaign. Shortly after he took office, he issued an executive order asking the National Institutes of Health to prepare a guideline for the funding of new stem cell research. More details.
Adult stem cells:
Stem cells can also be extracted from adult tissue, without harm to the subject. Unfortunately, they are difficult to harvest, are severely limited in quantity, and -- above all -- are limited in their flexibility. There is a consensus among researchers that adult stem cells can only produce a few of the 220 types of cells in the human body.
Adult cell research has a twenty year head start over embryonic stem cells. According to Focus on the Family Action:
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS cells):
This is a third type of stem cell that show great promise for the future. They have the flexibility and potential range of applications of embryonic stem cells without the ethical concerns expressed by religious and social conservatives. The process by which iPS cells are generated involves the conversion of ordinary cells -- like skin cells -- so that their properties simulate those of embryonic stem cells. Shinya Yamanaka pioneered the process in 2006 by inserting DNA into an ordinary cell through the use of viruses. Scientists in Canada and England developed a far safer process in 2009 on both mice and human cells. According to the Washington Post, he lead scientist from Canada, Andras Nagy, said: "It's a leap forward in the safe application of these cells. We expect this to have a massive impact on this field." 7 More details
Unethical reporting on stem cells:
Focus on the Family Action noted that investors have little interest in investing in embryonic stem cell research at this time because there is little likelihood that fully tested treatments or cures will be made available for general use in the near future. Private investors normally require fast return on their money.
"Focus" emphasized that:
This is a common assertion found in countless social and religiously conservative news sources. The implication is that embryonic stem cells will never successfully used to treat or cure human diseases or disorders. They view embryonic stem cell research as a blind alley. We have seen this same story mentioned dozens of times from at last a half dozen conservative news sources. None of them have ever mentioned that adult stem cell research has a two decade lead over research using embryonic stem cells. The latter is in its infancy and will probably need another two decades to arrive at the same stage as adult stem cell applications have reached today.
Ironically, embryonic stem cells may never result in cures and treatments for illnesses and disabilities, because Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) Cells will probably be used instead. The main accomplishment of embryonic stem cell research may well be that it made the generation of iPS cells possible. 7
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