November 03, 2006

Stem Sold

Stem cell research is becoming one of those "hot-button" issues this election season. It seems that more liberal candidates support the study, while conservatives have made an effort to block research. President Bush himself used his first ever veto to block a congressional act allowing research. (Finally he uses a veto... I guess it shows how aligned Bush and the Republican congress are!)

Why is this such a big deal? It seems like any medical effort that could be made to save lives and fight diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's and heart disease would be a shoe-in. Well, it's complicated. But here's the short of it:

Your entire body is made up of cells, but there's lots of different kinds. Skin cells, heart cells, nerve cells, bone cells, etc, are all a little bit different, because they have different functions. They can't be interchanged to help heal other body parts not of their same type. (i.e. a skin cell put in your brain won't regenerate neurons lost from a stroke) Stem cells aren't any specific type of cell. Or rather, they're any type of cell you want. Follow me on this.

A stem cell is like a blank piece of paper that can be written on with a pencil. However, the pencil has no eraser. Stem cells can be conformed to be nerve cells, heart cells, or whatever else is needed, but it can't work backwards. So theoretically, we could use stem cells to create heart cells and help someone with heart disease. Easy enough, right? Sort of. Adult humans do have a limited number of stem cells in their bodies which can be used, but the process isn't as effective or promising as the alternative.

Embryonic Stem cells (or ES) is the same concept, but the cells are obtained from an embryo, where all the cells are dividing to become different body parts. Cultures of human embryonic cells can be used for this research, and this is the most controversial idea surrounding stem cells. The political problem arises when people believe that stem cell research requires the "murder" of a baby to access these cells. This really isn't the case. Most stem cell research is done using embryonic cell lines that were already created for the purpose of in-vitro fertilization. After a successful fertilization, the remaining embryonic cells are set to be destroyed anyway, so using them for research is a lot better than nothing. Furthermore, the embryo that is used is at its very earliest stages of development. We're talking 32-64 total cells. A far cry from the 50-75 trillion cells it takes to make a living, breathing human.

I'm all-for stem cell research. I think the possibilities that lie within a handful of cells vastly outweighs the claim by a few that we're murdering babies for the benefit of a few. Much of the opposition (frequently the religious right) claim that "life begins at conception". I disagree with that statement, especially when there are fewer than 100 cells in question.

Even if not everyone agrees that we should allow embryonic generation for the purpose of research, it cannot be denied that the medical possibilities that could be unlocked are powerful and numerous. At the very least, researchers should be given full access and permission to utilize embryonic cell lines that already exist to further understand what possibilities may await. Perhaps then we can more fully understand their potential and develop a strong case for additional embryonic research development.

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