Biotechnology, Scientific Literacy, and the Promise of Stem Cells

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In an increasingly combative social environment where everything has the potential to fall under the umbrella of ''the political,'' human health and scientific progress have become a point of contention which threatens to stall what could very well be lifesaving cures for diseases affecting millions around the world. Indeed, last year's Missouri senate race highlighted the contentiousness of the issue which compelled Michael J. Fox, a sufferer of Parkinson's Disease, to inject himself into the debate by pleading with voters to support then candidate Claire McCaskill, whose platform included expanding stem cell research. (McCaskill won, unseating the incumbent Jim Talent, who ran opposing stem cell research.)

The debate hinges almost exclusively on the idea that stem cells (those primal cells with the ability to renew themselves through mitosis) used in research will be harvested from human embryos or from therapeutic cloning, both techniques which run counter to the pro-life stance of many religious conservatives. Opponents further argue that allowing full-blown stem cell research will eventually lead to human cloning and the collective devaluing of human life.

The social pendulum, however, seems to be swinging in favor of stem cell research, which has the very real potential to produce cures for diseases of epidemic proportions, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis (a disease many expect to be cured in our lifetime), and even AIDS and various types of cancer. Recent surveys have shown that the American public favors stem cell research by a substantial 2-to-1 margin. 60% of Americans believe that the government should allocate federal funds for stem cell research.

In Europe, the debate is decidedly less intense, with stem cell research largely funded at the national, rather than European level, utilizing adult rather than embryonic stem cells. The most progressive nations include Belgium, Finland, France, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom, all of which favor funding research across the European Union.

Recent privately funded breakthroughs in stem cell research have proven quite promising. Leading British author and scientist, Lauren Pecorino, Ph.D., has noted that several biotech companies are developing a number of strategies for stem cell therapies:
  • Diacrin has been developing xenotransplants using fetal pig cells. Clinical trials for chronic stroke patients have begun. Presently, stroke patients require treatment within 24 hours after stroke for effective therapeutic results. Many patients do not receive treatment in time because the symptoms are not initially obvious. Diacrin's therapy, however, could be applied weeks to months after the initial trauma.

  • NeuroNova's strategy is to culture adult human cells from donors, differentiate them in culture to produce the type of cells (dopaminergic neurons) which is lost in Parkinson's disease, and to transplant them into the brain of patients.

  • Neurotech is using genetically altered brain endothelial cells (engineered to produce human Interleukin-2) as immunotherapy for gliomas. Results from experiments in rats showed that these cells "mopped up" the tumour cells, and as a result, a clinical study has commenced.
Researchers have also made a significant advancement by developing mouse stem cells which are able to produce their own insulin, which could certainly help treat the 16 million Americans living with diabetes.

Despite being favored by a solid majority, the debate over stem cell research is likely to continue as both a moral and political issue, though reconciliation is only likely to occur if the dispute is addressed for what it actually is: a scientific issue. The lack of awareness in the general public of certain sound and long-established scientific principles is disturbing, if not especially surprising.

For example, when it comes to the debate over abortion (one inextricably tied to the fight over stem cells), most Americans are unaware that most embryos die within the first few weeks of conception — naturally. This phenomenon is called spontaneous abortion and has occurred in human beings since the beginning of the species. Spontaneous abortion is common knowledge among scientists and doctors but remains virtually unknown among members of the public at large, most of whom (we can safely assume) have taken some sort of biology instruction and favor reproductive rights by an overwhelming majority.

The time during which embryos are most at risk is before they have been able to implant themselves in the uterine wall. During this critical period, the number of surviving embryos falls dramatically, with only half being able to successfully implant. If one follows the logic, as many opposed to stem cell research do, that an embryo has the full moral status of a living, breathing human being, then it also follows that over 60% of human beings are killed before they are born. (Some studies have placed the rates of spontaneous abortion as high as 80% and some as low as 45%.) Regardless, if one equates embryos with human beings, then it becomes clear that Mother Nature kills off the majority of the human race every year through spontaneous abortion in numbers tallying in the hundreds of millions. Indeed, one can safely assert that the survival of an embryo to term is the exception rather than the norm, reflective, undoubtedly, of the force of evolution. Here's another little known scientific fact: 99.9% of all plant and animal species that have ever existed have become extinct — virtually all of them. As Darwin observed, species have a tendency to overproduce, and natural checks like spontaneous abortion are necessary to keep the Earth from becoming deluged with inhabitants.

Recent studies into this everyday phenomenon have shown that most embryo loss occurs before pregnancy can be detected and that the average mother of three children can expect to have had five spontaneous abortions in her lifetime. The risk for spontaneous abortion increases precipitously according to the mother's age and the number of previous births.

Why does spontaneous abortion occur? Aside from the innate delicacy of embryos fighting to attach themselves to the uterine wall, many embryos self-destruct because of chromosomal defects. This is not to say that all embryos containing chromosomal defects are destroyed; some, such as those found in individuals living with Down syndrome, are obviously non-fatal.

Some may choose to argue that since spontaneous abortion is a naturally occurring phenomenon that science should not actively work to save those embryos, which they differentiate from the embryos which have a chance to come to term. The argument fails because many (if not most) diseases are the result of natural conditions, including cancer, and certainly few would argue that researchers ought not to try to fight cancer.

Interestingly enough, the Dickey Amendment, the first bill prohibiting federal funds to be used in research where human embryos were either created or destroyed, was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1995. Senator Hillary Clinton, however, has taken the opposite position while campaigning for the Democratic nomination, accusing the Bush administration of "waging a war on science" in its refusal to fund stem cell research.

With the potential to save untold numbers of lives around the world, the debate over stem cell research can only become reasoned and dispassionate when the public at large comes to terms with the scientific basics of biological life. It is too easy to become bogged down by the dictates of dogma when progress — real, lifesaving progress — beckons.

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