Stem cell research
Stem cell research (research on stem cells and their use in medicine) is an exciting new field of study that could lead to major breakthroughs in the medical field. However, stem cell research is also the topic of great debate and dispute in both the Christian and secular world. Stem cells have the potential to form many different types of tissues, and therefore show promise for treating many types of diseases and even disabilities. The main point of dispute over the use of stem cells is in the origin of the stem cells. These cells can be found in human embryos and in adult tissue, but harvesting stem cells from human embryos requires that the embryo be destroyed. The fact that embryonic stem cell research requires the murder of a human has become a major concern for Christians. Although stem cell research offers huge potential, it is still considered a controversial field of study.
Properties of Stem Cells
- Main article: Stem cell
Stem cells have two distinct characteristics that distinguish them from other cells. To begin with, stem cells are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves through cell division, a process also called proliferation. They can divide more rapidly than normal cells for a long period of time. The second distinguishing property of stem cells is that they are unspecialized; however, they can give rise to specialized cells with functions such as the beating cells of the heart. Stem cells can become specialized through a complex process of genetic switches that either occur naturally or in a scientific lab. Every human begins as a single cell, a new cell formed from the combined DNA of the mother and the father. That first cell contains all the genetic information needed to grow into an adult in its DNA. As the cell divides and the embryo grows, the cells slowly become differentiated. Through a process of elaborate switching sequences and controls, the cells become differentiated to complete specific tasks. To better understand, one must understand that every cell in the human body contains the same DNA. Stem cells in different parts of the body must become specialized through a process called differentiation. In the process of differentiation, certain genes are "turned off" either by a process of genetic switches or methylation. After this, the cell is differentiated and becomes suited to a serve a specific function in the body. For example, some stem cells become muscle cells and others become neural cells. Stem cells can be found in embryos of animals or humans and also in adult animals or humans.
Embryonic Stem Cells
Stem cells can be derived from human and animal embryos. Generally, scientists use the frozen, fertilized eggs from in vitro fertilization clinics that are not used. A couple undergoing in vitro fertilization might have about sixteen surplus embryos and must choose whether to have them discarded, donated to another infertile couple, frozen for future use, or donated for scientific research. The embryonic stem cells used are usually taken from four to five day old embryos. At this point, the embryos are the blastocyst stage, meaning they are a hollow, microscopic ball of cells. The stem cells are harvested from the inner cell mass, a group of approximately 30 cells of the blastocyst. Scientists transfer the embryonic stem cells to a laboratory culture dish and allow them to proliferate, which stem cells do fairly quickly. Scientists use all these new cells for embryonic stem cell research.
Adult Stem Cells
Adult stem cells are rarer; they are the undifferentiated stem cells found in a mass of specialized cells in a tissue or organ. Scientists believe that they remain quiescent (non-dividing) unless stimulated by disease or injury. Adult stem cells function to maintain and repair the tissue or organ that they exist in. In proportion to the entire human body, adult stem cells are rare. However, they can be found in bone marrow and in the brain. The difference between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells is that embryonic stem cells can differentiate into any type of cell, while adult stem cells are generally limited to differentiating into the types of tissues that surround them. Also, the process by which adult stem cells can be grown in a culture is still being researched.
Stem cell research is a relatively new field of scientific research. Research has been conducted on both human stem cells and those of animals. Scientists conduct experiments using mice stem cells to further understand the complexities of stem cells and how to utilize them safely in humans. In the mouse model of muscular dystrophy, a specific type of adult mouse muscle stem cell was transported into diseased tissue and established a pool of non-diseased cells. The techniques used to cure muscular dystrophy in mice will soon be employed to find the cure for muscular dystrophy in humans. Another interesting example of the successful use of stem cells is in restoring vision to rats. In a certain study, stem cells from the hippocampal region were transplanted into their eyes. Those stem cells went to the damaged parts of the eyes and began making new nerve connections. The use of stem cells in the eyes could be revolutionary in restoring vision for human patients who suffer from age-related macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, retinal detachments, and even diabetic retinopathy. Other applications of stem cells include curing insulin-dependent diabetes, repairing damaged heart muscles, and predicting breast cancer in humans. Stem cells have a huge variety of possible applications, because they encourage cell regeneration and healthy growth. Although research is still preliminary, the possibilities of stem cell research applications are virtually limitless.
Some stem cell research requires that scientists "reprogram" the DNA of stem cells. Among other reprogramming factors, scientists commonly use viruses to insert new genetic information into the stem cells to cause the stem cell to differentiate into a desired type of cell. Researchers at Harvard University have discovered a potent chemical (valproic acid) that is applied to newborn human skin in a culture. This acid unravels the DNA and allows access to the genes. Also, scientists in Japan are currently working on a method to insert the new genetic information into cells without using a virus. This "reprogramming" of the stem cells allows scientists to control the process of differentiation.
Laws About Stem Cell Research in the U.S.
The subject of stem cell research is a source of great debate in the U.S. President George W. Bush, a conservative Republican and proclaimed Christian, announced a federal policy regarding stem cell research on August 9, 2001. He limited the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research with the following criteria:
- The embryonic stem cells must have been harvested before 9:00 PM EDT on August 9, 2001.
- The embryos involved must have been for reproductive purposes and are no longer needed.
- There must be informed consent for the donation of the embryo and there must be no financial incentives involved.
Along with these rules, President George W. Bush forbid funding for further destruction of human embryos and prohibited the harvesting of stem cells from 100,000 frozen embryos. Through this policy, President Bush opposed human cloning and affirmed the special value of a human life. However, some argue that President Bush's policy inadvertently rewards those who already destroyed the embryos by allowing their research to continue and that it also gives those scientists a monopoly on selling embryonic stem cell tissue to federal institutions.
Popular Public Opinion
The media has largely been supportive of the use of aborted embryos in stem cell research. They focus on the benefits that stem cells could bring to the medical field. However, they ignore the fact that using embryonic stem cells requires that researchers must kill the embryo. The media as well as the vast majority of the public rationalize that embryos are not alive. Growing atheism and acceptance of Darwinian evolution have caused a general reduction in the value of human life. Support does not come only from the media and scientific groups. Now, several governments have shown support for such research. The UK recently granted its first license to produce human clones for stem cell research. South Korean and Japan also followed and established their own similar policies on cloning. Although President George W. Bush banned funding for public embryonic stem cell research, research groups that are privately funded continue to research these areas. Even celebrities such as Ron Reagan, Michael J. Fox, and Christopher Reeve have become advocates of stem cell research, including embryonic stem cells. Like the media, these other groups emphasize the possible benefits that could come from embryonic stem cell research and ignore or attack opposing arguments. They assert that it is ethical to research embryos up to 14 days old, because the embryo can still split to form identical twins. They claim that the embryo does not have a soul at this age, because souls are individual and cannot divide in two. Another rationalization of pro-abortion groups is that the embryo does not look human and is therefore not human.
However, the media and general public are wrong. The Bible teaches that humans have been thoughtfully created by a loving God, that humanity starts at the beginning of a biological life, and that a human life is very valuable. The use of embryonic stem cells requires that scientists destroy the embryo and therefore intentionally murder a precious, human life. Stem cell research has had therapeutic effects on all sorts of diseases like cancer and leukemia. While the benefits of using embryonic stem cells may seem too amazing to reject, the ethical dispute still stands; should one life be killed in exchange for another or even several others? The answer, according to God's truthful Word, is that it is not for humans to decide whether people live or die. Humans, who are prone to making mistakes, cannot be trusted to decide the value of human life.
Alternatives to Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Instead of using precious human embryos, stem cell research using adult stem cells should be supported. The successes of adult stem cell treatments have been overlooked by most people. Not only is non-embryonic stem cell research less controversial, but it also has been more successful in the past. Most of the medical breakthroughs involving stem cells have been from the use of adult stem cells. Non-embryonic stem cells can be found in umbilical cord blood, in liposuctioned fat, and other parts of the body. One of the greatest benefits of using adult stem cells is that a patient could use their own stem cells to heal with the help of a doctor. Stem cell transplants from the patient's own body would have a lower chance of rejection and is thus safer. Adult stem cell research is a promising field that could yield great results if more people support it and if more is invested in it.
- Stem cells and Genesis by Jonathan Sarfati, Journal of Creation. 15(3) (2001):19-26.
- Stem Cell Basics: What are the unique properties of all stem cells?
- Stem Cell Basics: Introduction
- Stem Cell Basics: What are embryonic stem cells?
- Stem Cell Basics: What are adult stem cells?
- Stem Cell Basics: What are the similarities and differences between embryonic and adult stem cells?
- Highlights of Stem Cell Research Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008.
- Stem Cell Research: Is a Life for a Life Required? Barlowe, Byron. Leadership University. 9 November 2008.
- What should a Christian's view be on stem cell research? Got Questions Ministries. 9 November 2008.
- Human stem cell research: all viewpoints ReligiousTolerance.org.
- Stem Cell Basics Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008.