Stem cell research has been a controversial topic since its conception–and understandably so. On one hand, we have a technology that could one day completely eliminate many of the diseases that have presented roadblocks to medical science for centuries. However, such research presents an ethical dilemma–the most promising resources involved, embryonic stem cells, are obtained (with a few exceptions) via the destruction of a fertilized human embryo. The debate between advocates for the sanctity of human life and those for medical advancement has been incendiary and sometimes violent, but recent advancements in biotechnology have literally reinvented the field.
It doesn’t matter what you think about stem cell research. The debate will soon be a completely moot point, as there are now ways in which this technology can advance without being mired in moralistic discussion, specifically, the possibility of completely reprogramming mature adult cells to perform like embryonic stem cells.
As my first contribution to The Sexy Politico, I would like to promote discussion of this topic. I intend to start with an overview of the debate as it stands today, and then move directly into the meat of the matter itself: the science behind this new technology and why it is important.
Conservatives argue that stem cell research is problematic not because of the science, but because the destruction of the embryo is required to obtain the stem cells that drive this field of research. Of course, there are multiple sources of stem cells, such as those obtained from umbilical cords. However embryonic stem cells are the preferred source, for reasons that will be discussed in a moment. Here, we find ourselves in a debate over the embryos themselves and where life itself can be said to begin, much like in the debate over abortion. Does it begin at conception, or later in fetal development?
State governments and politicians have preoccupied themselves with this issue for years. Religious organizations have hastened to pitch in, too–vehemently advocating that conception is the moment in which life begins. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has made its position on this very clear. As stated in a publication approved by Pope Benedict XVI in June 2008, medical advancements such as embryonic stem cells are unacceptable when they involve the destruction of a human being. It goes on to say that “the body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells.” From a biological standpoint, this cannot be disputed; in science, the basic unit of life is the cell. So long as an organism can maintain homeostasis, achieve a level of organization, demonstrate metabolism, grow, adapt, respond to stimuli, and reproduce, it can be said to be alive. A single cell from any embryo satisfies each and every one of these criteria.
If this is the case, why has embryonic stem cell research not been delivered its deathblow? The answer: because it works. A large and growing body of evidence suggests that stem cell therapies can one day treat many degenerative diseases where irreparable damage has been done to the body’s systems–Parkinson’s Disease being only one example. In fact, one study in mice performed by Nori et al. (2011) has demonstrated that human stem cells–obtained in such a way as to avoid ethical concerns –can and do cause remarkable recovery in mouse test subjects that sustained severe spinal injuries, without causing tumors or other worrisome results. This is only one instance out of many! With such promising results, stem cell investigations cannot be dismissed.
But while scientists and politicians advocate for sources of stem cells that are obtained via “ethical” methods such as cord blood, many are also in favor of those obtained from destroyed embryos themselves. As J. Leslie Glick, a writer for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News points out, many of these utilized embryos are destined for destruction anyway; they are discarded or otherwise unneeded spares from in vitro fertilization. He explains that federal funds would only pay for these embryos already created and marked for destruction by the private sector.
For these reasons, Glick is strongly in favor of stem cell research on the whole, a position that is powerfully supported by many prominent liberal politicians, our current President one of the foremost. As CBS News reported, President Obama signed a sweeping executive order in 2009 that would allow taxpayer dollars to fund stem cell research, effectively undoing the ban on tax money funding new stem cell lines established by President Bush before him in 2001. In Obama’s official press release he states his reasoning quite clearly: “Medical miracles do not happen by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research – from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit–and from a government willing to support that work… But in recent years, when it comes to stem cell research, rather than furthering discovery, our government has forced what I believe is a false choice between sound science and moral values.” The liberal side as a whole reflects this train of thought. An examination of voting records shows that Bernie Sanders is in support of stem cell research on the whole, as do those of Hillary Clinton.
Why This Debate Will Soon Be Irrelevant
Of course, you may be familiar with all of this; the debate is not an old one, after all. What’s really important here is that this debate may soon be completely irrelevant. In 2012, two scientists, John B. Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. As the Nobel Prize Foundation explains, the result of their work was the discovery that mature cells can be reprogrammed back into stem cells. That is, cells that have diversified, grown from stem cells and achieved the purpose encoded in their genetic material. Gurdon paved the way in 1962 when he discovered that specialization of cells was reversible. It was Yamanaka, four decades later, who expanded on this research and managed to create these reprogrammed, embryonic-like stem cells.
To understand why exactly this is so ground breaking, we need to think about what makes embryonic stem cells so desirable. When we think about these cells, we think about their potency, that is, their ability to effectively become other types of cells. Cells that are totipotent, like the zygote formed from the merger of sperm and egg, can become an entire organism all its own. But the cells we concern ourselves with here are pluripotent, meaning they can become a wide range of cell types. It is pluripotent stem cells that scientists have used in their experiments. Embryonic stem cells are preferred because they are the most pluripotent cells available. While the adult body is full of stem cells (in bone marrow, for example), these are not suitable for use because they are not pluripotent enough. Marrow stem cells have diversified enough so that they can only form a few varieties of cells, like those of the blood. They are unusable for the stem cell therapies we are concerned about.
But if we can reprogram cells to achieve a level of pluripotency similar to embryonic stem cells, think of the possibility! Not only can research and development continue without the moral dilemma involving the destruction of human embryos, but the needed materials for universal stem cell treatment could potentially be derived and grown from a patient’s own body. Reprogramming of human cells has, in fact, already been done in many studies. In 2007, Dr. Junying Yu, a widely renowned stem cell biologist and her team of researchers observed that these reprogrammed cells behaved completely normally and maintained their pluripotency, which is promising for the future of disease treatment. In the same year, Dr. In-Hyun Park and his own team successfully reprogrammed fully diversified somatic cells from adults, children, and infants alike to an embryonic-like level of pluripotency.
Now, of course this is not fresh news. The Nobel Prize was awarded three years ago, and I’m certainly not the first person to report on this exciting technological leap. So why bring it up now? While it may have fallen out of the big time headlines in recent years, this technology is still current, important, and in development. There is a long way to go before stem cell therapy will be the norm in modern medicine, especially therapies derived from a patient’s own body. We as a species are on the cusp of something that can literally change the face of medicine, with the potential to liberate it from its ethical shackles. But too often the issue gets mired in misinformation and media sensationalism. The best thing that we can do is inform ourselves, and support this line of research. Together we can save lives and do it ethically.