Stem Cell Research
Background on Stem Cell Research
Since 1995, a provision of the annual Health and Human Services appropriations bill called the "Dickey Amendment" has prohibited federal funding of any "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death. . ."
Research using human embryos became a critical issue in November 1998, when a University of Wisconsin researcher first isolated and cultured a special type of cell, known as a stem cell, that arises in embryos several days after sperm meets egg when a new human life is begun. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the ability to transform themselves, in varying degrees, into many other types of cells. Thus a single stem cell could become a skin cell, a hair cell, a liver cell, and so on. As the embryo grows, its stem cells give rise to every other type of cell, tissue and organ in the body. All of us were once stem cells, and our bodies still hold many forms of these cells.
The discovery of embryonic stem cells immediately raised hopes that doctors could one day learn to grow them into replacement tissues for patients—new brain cells for Parkinson’s patients, pancreas cells for diabetics and nerve cells for people with spinal cord injuries.
In 2000, the Clinton Administration authorized the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) to begin accepting applications from researchers who want federal money to do research on stem cells that are obtained by killing human embryos, who are usually five or six days old. However, the Bush Administration blocked any such grants from actually being approved while the president reviewed the Clinton policy. His decision to "allow federal funds to be used for research on. . . existing stem cell lines, where the life-and-death decision has already been made", was announced on August 9, 2001.
Embryonic Stem Cells versus other sources of Stem Cells:
The ethical problem is that in order to obtain embryonic stem cells, human embryos must be killed. Many researchers look to fertility clinics as a source of embryos, as fertility patients often create more embryos than they need when trying to conceive children through in vitro fertilization (IVF). At least one bio-technology firm, Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, reports paying women and men for their eggs and sperm in order to deliberately create embryos in the laboratory for the sole purpose of extracting stem cells from them. Other bio-tech companies have plans to mass-produce embryos through cloning in order to harvest their stem cells, thus killing the embryos they have created. (See related article on human cloning.)
But stem cells have also been found in many adult tissues: bone marrow, brain, blood, skeletal muscle, skin, cornea, liver, pancreas—virtually everywhere scientists have looked. Their purpose in the adult body appears to be for the renewal of lost cells and tissues and in reconstruction of injured or damaged tissues or organs. Some types of adult tissue are better at self-repair than others.
While once they thought these adult stem cells could make only more cells of the same tissue type, scientists are now having increasing success in prompting adult stem cells of one type to produce cell lines of other tissue types.
A few examples of the breathtaking medical breakthroughs occurring after years of research on adult stem cells and reported within the past year:
- Surgeons in Taiwan restored vision to patients with severe eye damage by using stem cells from the patients’ own eyes. Their vision improved from 20/112 to 20/45. (New England Journal of Medicine)
- British scientists found that adult stem cells in bone marrow can turn into liver tissue, a first step toward developing new treatments for liver damage. (Nature)
- Two recent studies show that adult stem cells in bone marrow transplanted into the brains of mice can develop into neurons and have been reprogrammed into healthy brain cells in lab rats. (Science)
- Scientists found that adult stem cells in bone marrow injected into a damaged mouse heart could become functional heart muscle cells, and that these new cells partially restored the heart’s pumping ability. One of the scientists predicted human clinical trials could start in three years. (Nature)
- Canadian scientists found that stem cells isolated in the skin of adult mice
can grow into brain cells, fat cells or muscle cells. (Nature Cell Biology)
The May-June 2001 issue of "Life Insight" (a publication of the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities) lists these other amazing advances in research using non-embryonic stem cells:
- Human patients were successfully treated for heart disease using stem cells from their own arm muscles (The Lancet, Jan. 2001);
- Umbilical cords ‘offer a vast new source of repair material for fixing brains damaged by strokes or other ills’ (Associated Press report);
- At the Salk Institute, brain stem cells taken as long as 20 hours after death, from cadavers up to 72 years of age, were induced to proliferate; and,
- Adult bone marrow stem cells can form almost any cell type—liver, nerve, brains, and so on (Science, June 2001)."
What Can You Do?
Stay tuned to this website for new developments and specific action ideas. Talk to your friends and family about this important issue, and consider writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. Please contact the members of the Vermont delegation, and let them know you oppose any federal funding of ESCR. As always, we must PRAY!
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