Stem Cell Research and Politics


What are stem cells?

Stem cells are specialized cells that are genetically flexible and can, given the correctly timed environmental cue, grow and develop into a different type of cell. This process is known as differentiation in developmental biology. Stem cells are found in all major organ systems and allow the body to regenerate damaged tissue. These kind of stem cells are known as adult stem cells. There are also the embryonic stem cells, which are cells of the newly fertilized embryo. All life begins with a single cell, the zygote, and this zygote will split several times into smaller cells, all of which are identical to each other. These cells are held together in the morula stage of embryonic development and precedes gastrulation, the first event in changing the characteristics of the many embryonic stem cells into different cell lines. Each cell line is the beginning of a later tissue and organ of the fetus and grown body. This process of specialization is irreversible. However, some stem cells have been tricked in the laboratory to behave like a zygote after receiving the genetic material from a donor cell. This process is known as cloning. Cloning allows either the creation of a genetically identical offspring exactly as the genetic information of the donor cell dictates, or the harvesting of specialized stem cells from embryonic stem cells after a cloning event. The latter is often referred to as therapeutic cloning. Biologically, each zygote like cell has the potential to develop into a full grown individual, thus the controversy over using these cells in medical research.

What is the advantage of stem cells in treating diseases?

The role of stem cells in embryonic and fetal development, wound healing and the daily regeneration of skin and blood cells (thus our ability to shed skin and donate blood, bone marrow or umbilical cord blood cells) highlights the potential of stem cells to be used in any kind of wound healing or repair of damaged tissue such as heart tissue and nervous tissue to treat spinal cord injuries. A particularly interesting application is the potential use of genetically modified stem cells to treat genetic diseases.

The California Stem Cell Project

The recent establishment of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine has the declared goal of overcoming the limitations set by President Bush on publicly funded stem cell research, particularly the prohibition of finding new stem cell lines suitable for medical research. This limitation is restricted to embryonic stem cells, not adult stem cells. The California project will make money available to California researches interested in developing new stem cell lines from embryos. The promises are indeed mind blowing and stem cell research rightly deserves public support. It should be kept in mind that President Bush's limitation only affects publicly funded research, but not privately funded one. Thus, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are free to produce and use embryos for new disease treatments. Stem cell research is a very new science. California will certainly contribute many new insights into the reality and potential use of stem cells for medical cures. The institute has a projected 10 year initial funding, a time line that seems reasonable long to show results. So what can we expect?

Can stem cell research deliver what its supporters promise?

The idea of using stem cells to treat diseases is intriguingly simple. Yet, there are some caveats that must be kept in mind to adjust ones expectations to reality. Solutions will not come soon. And they will not be cheap. Just consider that the California Institute will spend an estimated 6 billion dollars over 10 years. For this amount of money, many more research activities could be funded in addition to stem cell research. If gene therapy is any guide, and the similarities are quite real, there is a good chance that problems with cancer will considerably affect the direction and expenses. For now, the potential benefits are worth the costs and effort.

A demand for public oversight.

The steering committee of the institute, the so called Independent Citizens Oversight Committee is filled with representatives of a close-knit community of special interest groups. The generously termed committee must itself submit to public oversight, a situation that is not given at the moment. One would think that the term 'independent citizen' means independence from special interest. This is clearly not the case. The term 'independence' actually refers to any outside interference in the committee's work, particularly interference from the state legislature. Obviously, the amount of tax payers money available to the 29 committee members, money which they can steer towards there own research institutions demand great public disclosure of any fund allocation. Transparency is a must, because those who benefit are not those who pay the bill. It is our believe that the 10 year term of the initial phase will not be enough to lead to an actual treatment of a disease.

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