Stem cells and cloning

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) offers some very interesting programming when you can’t find much else on television (I know I should be reading a book, but oh well). What interested me, though, was Nova addressed the issue of using embryonic stem cells to save lives. Embryonic stem cells may provide a life-saving possibility to many people with terminal illnesses or debilitating diseases. But there are many people that believe that using embryonic stem cells is unethical, believing that it involves destroying one life to save another life.

The truth is that embryonic stem cells used in medical research do not derive from an aborted embryo. Instead, the process involves an unfertilized egg cell (that’s unfertilized with an “un.”) The unfertilized cell’s nuclear material is removed. Next, a donor cell’s nucleus is injected into the egg cell; this nucleus would come from the person who is suffering from a terminal illness (maybe a skin cell or some other non-invasive cell that contains the person’s DNA). The modified cell then receives a stimulus (either chemical or electrical) to start the reproductive process of cell division (I hope you remember your grade school biology). This structure is termed an “embryo.” This seems to be where some confusion occurs. Please note that, according to Nova, the “embryo” did not involve abortion, as most people are led to believe. The cell grows and develops into a blastocyst in a few days. This essentially becomes a “fertilized egg.” However, it grows in a tissue-culture dish. This will continue to grow, and it can be manipulated into specific organ tissues. However, this “fertilized egg” will not grow up to be a full human being; it would need to be implanted in a uterus.

Many would argue that scientists have been researching stem cells for years, and yet progress has been extremely slow. One of the biggest issues is using stem cells to create organs that a sick person’s body would not reject. Today many chemicals are used to prevent this, but they are strong, they weaken the immune system, and they don’t always work. A cloned organ could replace a diseased one without the use of strong chemicals. Furthermore, there is a large difference between “therapeutic cloning” and “human cloning.” What I’m writing about is therapeutic cloning, or cloning stem cells to recreate tissue to replace faulty or diseased tissue in a person. Human cloning, on the other hand, is the stuff that resembles science fiction, or even Dolly the cloned sheep. But those that argue that stem cell research has taken too long and has resulted in very little seem to forget that results don’t always come immediately. For centuries, people believed in bloodletting. It took millennia for the civilized world to realize that small organisms called bacteria caused a number of diseases. Even then, there were many skeptics that disbelieved this. Even if these little organisms existed, others asked how we would be able to treat a person infected with them. Then Penicillin was discovered. Today, there is overwhelming evidence that those skeptics were wrong. Today, we use essentially the same technology that we used 30 years ago to treat cancer. If a new, much more effective method of treating cancer came from using stem cells, why would we reject it.

Finally, I just want to point out that there are real human lives with real experiences and talents that could be affected by this research. Even the family of a former Republican president (Ronald Reagan) spoke out in favor of stem cell research, as did celebrities like the Michael J. Fox and the late Christopher Reeve.

Our society has been involved in a number of unethical activities, yet we often don’t realize that we’ve committed immoral actions until much later. Unlike many of those events, stem cell research could provide a second lease on life for many people. They at least deserve to have a little hope.

PBS – Nova Science Now: Stem Cells article