Stem Cell Research – Man vs. God

Opinion CategoryPresident Bush stated that federal funds would be awarded for research in the filed of stem cell research in 2001. Seven years later, this issue still raises multiple questions and is a highly debated topic. These questions range from the “What” to the “How” and most importantly to the “Why” of stem cell cultivation and development. The first two types of questions are easily answered with theories and facts, but the third sets the stage for strong ethical and moral debates. A country of more than 300 million people is bound to have strong and diverse opinions on this matter.

Human EmbryoStem cells are the building blocks of life; they are the “Version 1.00” of most cells of our body. All other cells (e.g. brain cells, blood cells, skin cells) are formed by the differentiation and maturation of these cells. The stem cells divide, mature and take on different functions based on the need. This is a process that occurs naturally when the embryo develops to a full term infant. These cells will continue to differentiate and integrate as a part of any other cell where it is transplanted.

Transplant these cells onto a site of injury, and the stage is set for potential healing and restoration of function.

How are these stem cells obtained?

Currently, the stem cells may be excavated from dead embryos, which were created solely “for the purpose of reproduction.” Adults also have a small percentage of stem cells in their bodies; these are found in the blood, in bone marrow, the brain, the liver and skin. There are 14 sites around the world that are recognized by the National Institute of Health Research as authorized suppliers of stem cells for research purposes. Research is currently being carried on to study the applicability of the stem cells in plastic surgery, in Parkinson’s disease and in spinal cord injury. People with spinal cord injuries may currently undergo the procedure of stem cell implantation in China or Portugal. There have been anecdotal reports of some functional gains after this surgery, but no published literature demonstrates significant improvement in independence.

When any new commodity hits the market, all major corporations want to enhance packaging and sell. It is probably just a matter of time before this happens to the topic of stem cell research. Rehabilitation hospitals and “recovery centers” are already encouraging positive blogs and upbeat subjective postings by patients who have undergone stem cell surgery. Not many people talk about the risk factors associated with surgery, and the amount of rehabilitation and intense work that is needed after the surgery in order to make the gains that these blogs report. With human trafficking rings and organ trade very much present globally, I cannot imagine that (illegal) mass production of embryos to harvest stem cells would be very far behind.

Humans are often drunk with power — by our position in the hierarchy of living beings and by the fact that we are the only species with highly refined analytical brainpower. Now, we are nearly at the point where we can play God — create, manufacture and destroy at will.

What is the chain that will keep us under control? What is that binding factor that will restrict us?

For now, it is the legal regulations set for us by policymakers. But for the future, when it is time for these restrictions to possibly lift, these will be questions that all of us will have to consider before we exercise our valuable opinion in this matter.

Further Reading

Stem Cell Information — The National Institutes of Health (NIH) resource for stem cell research.

  • I agree that there needs to be regulations – but with the potential benefits, I think it would be wrong to totally dismiss the use of this possibly life-saving material. Stricter enforcement, perhaps, but not a total shut down of the research.

  • Cornell Furtuna

    All the time including our modern days Church and it’s disciples were, are and will be against science and progress.

    Ask anyone of them if is suffering of devastating Spinal Cord or Brain Injury and what are they doing to cure these incredible sufferings.

    Life will not progress with empty words !!!

    Cornell Furtuna

  • There are “no clinical trials in the USA of any significance and no cure on the horizon.” “I made a choice to come to China and work my butt off in therapy and change my diet, and I’m slowing it (ALS) down. I’m realistic [enough] to know that I probably will die from ALS, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going down swinging! What do I have to lose?”

  • it is not playing god-it is trying to save your life


  • Ananth Narayan

    I think if I put the authors view in perspective it is like saying that a cosmetic surgeon is used to heal and make facial burns better. Not for Pamela Anderson.I think there HAS to be regulations to cater to Drew’s concern otherwise I dont know what kinda villians we will be creating in this society.
    And then we will end up paying more of our tax$ to protect us from such hazards.
    Genetic engineering has made child birth like placing an order at I want my good looking genes to be passed on is one such example..
    That is playing GOD,and i agree with the author!
    Stem cell research will become inevitable, but please have regulations and strict ones.

  • Mary A. Hamilton

    Corrections …

    Human embryonic stem cells (hES) are often made from scratch from lab. The restrictions are neither religious or government imposed – but simple supply. To make an embryo you need a human egg. Women must undergo a potentially life-threatening procedure to acquire the eggs (which is why most progressive countries ban payment for them and often ban altruistic donation as well). One year and $100,000 later, Harvard had no donors for their program.

    The United States actually has some of the least restrictions on hES research in the world. Though this piece implies religious restrictions, you’ll find leaders in stem cell research, like India, doesn’t allow creation of a human embryo simply for research purposes, and as mentioned above, many won’t allow you to get eggs for it. Few other countries allow cloning attempts. Furthermore, the US government grants more federal dollars for hES research ($40,000,000 annually) than most other countries combined spends on all stem cell research. Last year, Bush issued EO 13435 to expand funding for arrested embryos (1/2 of all IVF embryos arrest and they account for almost all the embryos ‘thrown away’), parthenogenesis (averages 2 eggs needed and used in Germany for eye and neural research) and a form of nuclear transfer (cloning). [Actually, he had to issue the executive order because the House wouldn’t bring a bill to his desk to sign, despite S.30 passing the Senate with a veto-proof margin – nay votes included Feinstein, Clinton, and Obama.)

    Also, embryonic stem cells (ES) have yet to be shown safe for therapies, and nowhere in the world are they being used that way. They form tumors with such regularity it is the preliminary test for them. Inject under skin. No tumor = no ES. One way that might get around this is to mature the ES (through other stem cell stages) to final tissue. Any spec of ES results in tumors, so this tissue would be like it came from any other adult and require a lifetime of immunosuppressing drugs. Unlike drug therapy, once they are there they can’t be ‘stopped’. As a result, if ever approved for human trials it would be a long time before insurance would cover the costs.

    Conversely, people’s own stem cells are being used for organ creation and transplant, ‘curing’ both types of diabetes, MS, crohn’s, lupus, arthritis, etc., regeneration of body parts, repair of damage caused by strokes and heart attacks -indeed, for most of the top 10 causes of death in US. (I’ve posted YouTube videos on all this, most coming from news sources or JAMA – under WayCurious. You can also search for the 1000+ currently recruiting.)

    Because cord blood can cross the blood/brain barrier it not only is used for repair – it is an excellent method for drug/gene transport; homing to the place of damage that needs it. Previously lethal conditions like Krabbe and Bubble Boy Disease have been cured this way.

    The spinal cord injury work done is with patient’s own stem cells. Pretty much all of Dr. Lima’s patients have had some form of recovery – if it’s only restoration of bladder function. US has pretty strict clinical trial requirements, but Dr. Rosin at University of Louisville is recording success on rats (search my YouTube for video).

    You are right to mention the risks of surgery. Because many treatments with non-embryonic stem cells can be done with injection/infusion, they are superior in this respect to the cut/replace surgical method that would be required using hypothetical embryonic stem cell generated tissue replacement.

    Another type of stem cell not mentioned here is considered by most ‘fathers of stem cells’ as the future of stem cell therapy. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) can be made through a simple swab of the cheek. These patient specific cells are perfect for understanding disease, drug testing, and (hopefully, eventually) direct therapies.

    The simple fact is, iPS makes (hES) obsolete.

    Sir Martin Evans : “This will be the long-term solution.”
    (Dr. Evans is the man who 1st isloated embryonic stem cells in 1981 and winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine)

    Dr. Ian Wilmut: “”this is the future of stem cell research: and it’s “100 times more interesting.”
    (Dr. Wilmut cloned Dolly, now has given up on SCNT because he “believes a rival method pioneered in Japan has better potential for making human embryonic cells which can be used to grow a patient’s own cells and tissues for a vast range of treatments.)

    Dr. John Gearhart “I think this is the future of stem cell research,”
    (the biologist who first discovered human fetal embryonic stem cells).

    Dr. James Thompson: “A decade from now, this [hES controversy] will be just a funny historical footnote,” “Isn’t it great to start a field and then to end it?”
    (1st to grow human embryonic stem cell lines in 1998 AND who reprogrammed skin to ’embryonic’ in the US)

  • Amy

    It’s true that embryos are not the only source of stem cells- stem cell research is being done with cells from a variety of sources. One currently used in animal study is adult NTF cells for spinal cord injury treatment. The most recent I heard was endometrial lining from the menstrual cycle. Science is amazing and when faced with a roadblock, will find a way around.

  • Pingback: Logistical Barriers to Stem Cell Research | Brain Blogger()

Nirupama Shankar, PT, MHS

Nirupama Shankar, PT, MHS, is a physical therapist by profession, and has over 7 years of clinical experience in the field of neurological rehabilitation. She has treated individuals with stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and amputations. She has also completed training modules and community education projects in Michigan and North Carolina.

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