During the summer of 2005, a movie came out called “The Island.” Have any of you seen it? The basic plot of the movie involved a facility where thousands of people lived in a very restricted and controlled environment believing that, apart from a single island, the world had become uninhabitable. Once a week a lottery was held and one lucky person was chosen to leave the facility to go live on this island paradise. It turned out that the people being kept in the facility were clones, exact clones produced for the very wealthy to be used for organ harvesting or surrogate motherhood. This movie was a sci-fi/thriller and took place in the year 2019. In this part of the series on stem cell research we will discuss the processes and practices of the research. During my own research, I was reminded of the movie, The Island, and honestly a bit taken aback as to how close science has come to making that sci-fi/thriller a potential reality.
There are two kinds of stem cells that fall under the umbrella of stem cell research, adult stem cells that are found in the brain, bone marrow, muscle, skin, blood and liver tissue, and those found in the cells of three to five-day-old embryos. Adult stem cells, those cells taken from a living human being, are reportedly limited to the types of cells they can be changed into, while embryonic stem cells have the potential to be changed into any one of the 220 types of cells in the human body, these are known as pluripotent stem cells. However, some scientists claim to have developed a process of making adult stem cells behave like embryonic stem cells making the adult stem cells pluripotent and reducing their limitations for treatments, they are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS cells). Some researchers have also proffered that embryonic stem cells are easier to grow in the laboratory than adult stem cells and that adult stem cell lines proliferate for a limited time, while embryonic stem cells have the potential to continue dividing forever.
The majority of embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos wherein eggs that have been fertilized in vitro at a fertility clinic are donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body, but rather as stated above, the biological materials are generally donated from unused eggs and/or sperm at fertility clinics. Embryonic stem cells are obtained either from existing human embryos or from embryos that have been created through a cloning process called somatic cell nuclear transfer, or (SCNT). The SCNT process was developed by Scottish scientist, Ian Wilmut, who created the first clone in 1996, Dolly the sheep. The process of SCNT, or cloning, involves removing the nucleus of a human egg cell and replacing it with the nucleus of the donor’s adult cell containing that person’s DNA. Scientists then stimulate the egg causing it to begin subdividing and creating the embryo from which stem cells can be harvested. The excitement around the SCNT process lies in the fact that using someone’s own cell material creates a clone of that person, for all practical purposes, thereby creating stem cells and/or tissue that drastically reduce the potential for rejection by the patient’s body. Regardless of the process used to create embryos for harvesting stem cells, the embryos are always destroyed.
According to reports by stemcellresearch.org:
“In contrast to research on embryonic stem cells, non-embryonic stem cell research has already resulted in numerous instances of actual clinical benefit to patients. For example, patients suffering from a whole host of afflictions—including (but not limited to) Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, stroke, anemia, cancer, immunodeficiency, corneal damage, blood and liver diseases, heart attack, and diabetes—have experienced improved function following administration of therapies derived from adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells. The long-held belief that non-embryonic stem cells are less able to differentiate into multiple cell types or be sustained in the laboratory over an extended period of time—rendering them less medically-promising than embryonic stem cells—has been repeatedly challenged by experimental results that have suggested otherwise.
Embryonic stem cell research often faces many obstacles in the lab. The process is apparently inefficient and lines are not produced each time cells from the preimplantation-stage embryo are placed into a culture dish. It is only if the plated cells survive, divide and multiply enough that they are then removed and plated into multiple culture dishes to begin a process known as re-plating or subculturing. This process is repeated numerous times taking several months. Once a cell line is established and embryonic stem cells that have proliferated for several months are deemed pluripotent, and are genetically normal an embryonic stem cell line has been created. Researchers then observe growth and differentiation of the human stem cells. Teratoma formation, viewed in stem cell research as the “gold standard” for assessing pluripotency, typically contains a mixture of many differentiated or partly differentiated cell types—an indication that the embryonic stem cells are capable of differentiating into multiple cell types.
When grown in proper conditions, embryonic stem cells can remain undifferentiated, however, if allowed to clump together they begin to differentiate spontaneously creating many other cell types contained in a human body. While spontaneous differentiation of cells is viewed as a good sign that a culture of embryonic stem cells is healthy, it is inefficient in that it is not a controlled process and as such not a practical manner of attempting to produce cultures of specific cell types. In order to create specific types of cell the differentiation of the embryonic stem cell must be controlled, a process that requires changing the chemical composition of the culture or modifying calls by inserting specific genes.
Information regarding adult stem cell research versus embryonic stem cell research seems to be reported by the two opposing sides with an obvious bias based upon their moral stance of creating embryos that will ultimately be destroyed. While it cannot be denied that adult stem cell therapies have been used successfully, those that have no moral issue with the destruction of embryos claim that only a few of the therapies have been part of big trials, and until large trials using both adult and embryonic stem cells have been conducted, we will not know which process will produce better results.
While this part of my series on stem cell research is limited to the processes and research itself, and the legislative and funding issues will be the subject of the next article on stem cell research, I do want to touch on legislation very briefly. In 2007, President Bush signed an executive order that expanded stem cell research while also stating:
“Research on Alternative Sources of Pluripotent Stem Cells. (a) The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary) shall conduct and support research on the isolation, derivation, production, and testing of stem cells that are capable of producing all or almost all of the cell types of the developing body and may result in improved understanding of or treatments for diseases and other adverse health conditions, but are derived without creating a human embryo for research purposes or destroying, discarding, or subjecting to harm a human embryo or fetus.”
In 2009, President Obama rescinded this Order and further, allowed for the use of public funds (your tax dollars) in embryonic research. I bring this up because we are petitioning President Trump to rescind President Obama’s Executive Order, and reinstate the Order signed by President Bush banning the creation of human embryo for research purposes. We will need to obtain 100,000 signatures within thirty days in order for this petition to be reviewed and/or responded to by the White House. So please, use the link below to sign the petition, you will then be forwarded an email by the government’s website for verification purposes, from which you must verify your email address for your signature to be counted.