One of the hot topics over the last couple of years has been the controversy of stem cell research. The Bush administration banned it. The Obama administration condones it.
The question is; why should you care?
First, some facts; all creatures have stem cells on one level or another. They are the core of our cellular development and in the embryonic state they do the job of being a “master copy” of every cell the body might need. That means that stem cells can initiate the creation of any cell type that the adult species will need, be it blood vessels, neurons, skin cells or specialized organ cells. This is called totipotency. Mostly embryonic stem cells are used for this kind of research and while adult humans also have stem cells, unlike embryonic stem cells they are usually limited to reproducing the cell types of the organ from which they were harvested.
This makes embryonic stem cells far superior as a research element, but, and this has been the main source of controversy, it requires the creation and destruction of a human embryo. This sounds harsh, but the fact of the matter is that we already have an overabundance of human embryos in the form of blastocysts, basically a collection of generic cells with the potential to become any kind of cell. Some have argued that they have as much in common with human life as skin cells do, however, the opposite side counters that unlike skin cells, these blastocysts have the “potential” for life.
Which is true as far as it goes. However, due to in vitro fertilization (IVF) we have the previously mentioned overabundance of embryos, hundreds of thousands of them every year, which are normally slated for destruction. This means that the potential for human life is lost anyway. These are not someone’s kids that are being picked apart; rather they are unused human tissue that would otherwise go to waste.
So, why are embryonic stem cells so much better than adult stem cells? As noted above, adult cells are severely limited as to what kinds of cells they can reproduce, but that is far from the whole picture. While an embryo at the stage of harvesting consists of almost nothing but stem cells, they are exceedingly rare in adult tissue (about 1 in 1000 bone marrow cells are usable for research or treatment). Embryonic cells also divide faster than adult cells which make them a lot better suited for the production of therapeutic remedies.
The potential for scientific achievement is of course immense and could enhance our understanding of the workings of cells by miles, but the real benefit could be cures, treatments and remedies of an unprecedented scale for a range of diseases and problems. Stem cells have been used to repair damaged heart tissue in mice and practical production of blood for transfusion is on the way. In addition there is hope that this research may in time provide the solution to disabling genetic and neurological ailments such as Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s and others. This may, to use a metaphor, turn out to be the Holy Grail of medicinal science.
There are two main hurdles that we need to deal with on this issue. The first is a morale one and has been the focus of both this text and the argument carried out in various media channels. As Richard Dawkins states in his letter to Tony Blair, science cannot tell you what is right or wrong, it can only tell you how it is. Questions of right and wrong belong in the realm of philosophy and in the hands of the people of society. The only thing science can do in this respect is to encourage consistency and remind us that we cannot have it both ways. We will have to decide at some point what we consider to be human life, whether it is worth more than any other kind of life (and if so, on what grounds) and what we will consider acceptable.
The other hurdle is of a judicial kind and the first tests of our legal system are already on the doorstep. The question is; can you patent life? Can you legalize the rights to something that essentially is a thing of nature? This conflict of definitions is not new. We saw the same kind of confusion when American settlers wished to buy land of the natives who were baffled by the idea that one could own land. Can you, when you get right down to it, own life? This is a matter that will set precedence for years to come, so we better make sure we get it right. The consequences could be much more far-reaching than we imagine.
So there you have it; my case for why stem cell research is something that everyone should know about and care about. I’m not going to suggest any kind of opinion on the matter, only a fervent wish that whatever decision we make, it will be an informed one, based on facts and not fantasy.