The History, Current Status and Future of Stem Cell Research
Stem cell research has been a controversial issue since the first time stem cells were discovered. It drew public attention from the beginning but today stem cell research is becoming a major public concern as its popularity is increasing. The controversy is centered around a conflict between the promise of saving lives and the morality of the research. The history, current status and the expected future of stem cell research are discussed in this article.
Stem cells are unspecialized or undifferentiated cells that can become any type of mature cells if provided with the right special conditions. There are three major types of stem cells, the first type is called toutipotents which can grow into a whole individual organism. The second type is plouripotent, which is also called embryonic stem cells and they can divide into any type of tissue. The last one is multipotent, as known as adult stem cells which are tissue-specific stem cells (Slack 2). Stem cell generation is a natural process that occurs in all mammals, however, scientists nowadays can extract these cells and grow them on Petri dishes. There’s no problem with growing the first and third type of stem cells in a lab, however, the bioethical debate that has been going on for decades only involves the embryonic stem cells.
The story began in 1961 when two scientists James Till and Ernest McCulloch at the University of Toronto accidentally discovered the existence of stem cells while they were studying the effect of radiation on bone marrow (The Telegraph). Scientists from many countries were very happy with this discovery as it is an innovation in the biomedical field which will lead to a potential cure for many diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and spinal cord injuries.
“[Human Embryonic Stem Cell] science depends on the manipulation and destruction of what, for some, is a key part of their cultural identity: the human embryo” (Salter 10), this quote briefly points out the main issue. Emryonic stem cells are extracted from blastosysts, a structure formed in mammals a few days after fertilization. The inner mass of blastosyst contains the embryonic stem cells, so in order to extract those cells, the blastosyst has to be invaded and destroyed. For this reason, President George W. Bush restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, believing that “human life is a sacred gift from our creator” and science has no right to take that gift away (qtd. in “George W. Bush and the Stem Cell Research Funding Ban”). Although President Bush did not prohibit privately funded institutions from continuing their work on embryonic stem cell research, the loss of federal support was a big issue to many scientists during a time when many other countries are competing and developing in the field.
California was one of the states that were not happy with the new restrictive policy. In 2004, California Institution for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) was established when voters approved proposition 71. This was a great step “which authorized $3 billion in funding for stem cell research in California”(CIRM.ca.gov). People were questioning what happens if CIRM runs out of money? Fortunately, CIRM has a solid transition plan to enable them to continue their mission.
In March 2009, President Obama signed an Executive order to remove some restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. President Obama in his speech on embryonic stem cell research on March 9, 2009 said:
When governments fail to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues goes unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work, and those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives. (whitehouse.gov)
Obama’s efforts were very appreciated by scientists and potential patients. However, the Dickey Amendment, which prohibits funding researches that involve destruction of human embryo, was still an obstacle. “An initial ruling led to a temporary injunction against NIH funding of hESC research, in essence suspending the Obama Executive Order. That ruling and the ban were subsequently reversed, and a decision of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on August 24, 2012, ruled that the policy did not violate the amendment” (Spiegel 12). Many institutions are progressing in their research using certain stem cell lines that are approved by funding regulations. However, the controversy among the public is still taking place.
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research believe that it is immoral and unethical to destroy fertilized embryos for research purposes. Researchers get the fertilized embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics with an approval from the patients. These fertilized embryos are usually the remainder and if they were not used in research they will be discarded. For this reason, supporters argue that these extra embryos have no chance growing into a human being so they could be used in research to save millions of lives instead of discarding them.
It is very hard to establish bioethical guidelines and policies that satisfy all parties. The future of embryonic stem cell research is dependent on rules, policies, funding, ethics and public participation. These factors are the brakes of the train of development in stem cell research. You as a citizen and an important building block of the society, have the right to either make that train stop (because embryos are destroyed, as opponents claim). Or, you can make it go as fast as possible to win the race (of helping humanity, as supporters claim). You can use your rights and legal tools to determine the future of stem cell research.
N.P. California’s Stem Cell Agency. California Institution for Regenerative Medicine, 2013. Web. 2 April 2015.
N.P. “Professor Ernest McCulloch ” The Telegraph. The Telegraph, 17 Feb. 2011. Web. 2 April 2015.
Obama, Barack. “Remarks of President Barack Obama: As Prepared for Delivery
Signing of Stem Cell Executive Order and Scientific Integrity Presidential Memorandum.” The White House. Washington DC. 9 March. 2009. Speech.
Park, Alice. “George W. Bush and the Stem Cell Research Funding Ban.” Time. Time, 20 Aug. 2012. Web. 2 April 2015.
Spiegel, Allen M. “ The Stem Cell Wars: A Dispatch From The Front”. Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association 124 (2013): 12. Print.
Salter, Brain. “The Global Politics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Science”. Global Governance 13 (2007): 10. Print.
Slack, Jonathan. Stem Cells: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.