Stem Cell Research – Man vs. Godby Nirupama Shankar, PT, MHS | June 18, 2008
President 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.
Stem 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.
Stem Cell Information — The National Institutes of Health (NIH) resource for stem cell research.
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