Before taking on this issue, I must admit that my knowledge of stem cell research, the process and the ensuing political debates, was lacking. As I dove into the research it became clear that there was so much history, biology, and legislation surrounding the issue that to be thorough this was an issue that needed to be tackled in pieces rather than one very lengthy article. The intent of this, and the entirety of my articles regarding stem cell research is to be unbiased and informative, to simply present the facts in a neutral manner (But I make no guarantees that I will not stray from my mission as it gets deeper into the debate and legislative issues.) This first article on stem cell research will focus upon providing some background information for the those that find themselves in the position I was a month ago, with little knowledge of the process, history and legislative issues.
As the term “stem cell” has been used as far back as 1868, and what exactly that term referred to has changed many times based upon the research of many scientists around the world, let’s start with the modern-day definition of what a “stem cell” is. From Merriam-Webster:
Medical Definition of stem cell: an unspecialized cell capable of perpetuating itself through cell division and having the potential to give rise to differentiated cells with specialized functions. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent cells derived from the inner cell mass of the blastocyst stage of the embryo. —Carrie J. Merkle, in Essentials of Pathophysiology, 2011
Another term often referred to in discussing stem cells and stem cell research is the germ line, so let’s get that definition out-of-the-way as well.
Definition of germ line: the cellular lineage of a sexually reproducing organism from which eggs and sperm are derived; also: the genetic material contained in this cellular lineage which can be passed to the next generation. Early studies, in the 1800’s, used the term stem cell to refer to what is known today as the germ line.
A little bit of history, until 1998 stem cell research was confined to living organisms other than human beings, mostly mice. In 1997 Canadian researchers learned that leukemia came from the same stem cells that make up our blood cells, this led to the theory that cancer was a result of stem cells gone awry. In 1998 two separate teams of scientists developed methods of culturing human embryonic stem cells. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore used stem cells from aborted fetuses, while James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, used embryos created by invitro fertilization, and grown for about five days until each developed into a hollow ball of cells. Science refers to this stage as a blastocyst, when the inner cells give rise to the entire body of the organism, including the numerous specialized cell types for organs such as the heart, lungs, skin, sperm, eggs and other tissues.
Scientists believed the ability to isolate and create embryonic stem cells as a potential breakthrough for treatment of chronic and debilitating diseases. Thus, beginning the research and processes that have become, and remain, so controversial.
The ethical debate begins with regard to stem cell research using human embryos. Opponents, those who believe that life begins at conception, argue that the research process is tantamount to murder as the process requires the embryos created be destroyed. This debate then brought rise to whether stem cell research should be funded by taxpayer dollars. Within both state and federal legislatures, the issue seems to be split along party lines, with democrats supporting the funding of such research while most republicans oppose it.
Now that the foundation has been laid, I hope you will look for my next article(s) where we will delve deeper into some of the biological processes of stem cell research, the moral implications of developing life changing or saving treatments versus the destruction of human embryos, and the role of the government in such issues.