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The Stem Cell Dilemma

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The Stem Cell Dilemma

Every day, nearly 3,000 people die while waiting for an organ transplant (D'Agnese). Moreover, 66,000 people are still on an organ donor list in the United States, few of which will ever see their name come up on that list ("Improving"). Many people believe nothing can be done about this sad fact. However, this is not the case. Studies on stem-cell research point toward a solution to this deadly problem. With efficient use of stem cells, many diseases and medical problems could be solved.

Stem-cells are very young, specialized cells. Usually coming from a human embryo, they have the ability to develop into more specialized groups of cells or tissues ("Stem Cells: A Primer"). As of 2001, scientists could develop stem-cells into more than 110 different types of tissues, such as blood, brain or heart tissue (Robinson). If these cells could be so useful in the medical field, why are they not being used now? First of all, the research on stem-cells is still ongoing, though if given funding this research may have already been accomplished. According to Gary Stix, a writer for Scientific American, on November 5th, 2001, a company called Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) was the first to actually clone embryonic cells. This is not cloning in the most common sense, though. Stem-cells have previously been obtained from tissues of early stage embryos. With this experiment, scientists tried to use a new technique in making stem-cells so that real embryos need not be used. The scientists injected cells into eggs which had their nuclei removed, rather than making an actual copy of the cell. These cells developed, though the furthest development was from the one cell to eight cells, which is not enough to provide stem-cells (Lauritzen). This may not seem like much, but it is seen as a small step on the path to greater and more efficient use of these cells. So, one factor in the question of why do we not use stem-cells is that certain people do not approve of the use of embryonic tissue in research. There are many reasons, however, in which it could be seen as feasible to use embryonic stem-cells in the sake of medicine. For example people with heart disease or kidney failure could be cured with a relatively cheap operation. Today organ transplants are quite expensive and sometimes a matching donor can not even be found if a patient had the money to pay for it. However if stem-cells could be used, organs would be easily accessible, and many of those who would not have been able to get a transplant would have new hope. Not only would stem-cells help with organ transplants, but they have also been shown to treat other diseases such as multiple sclerosis (Lee). Despite these facts, some may still think it is morally wrong to use stem-cells.

There are many reasons that help prove the fact that the use of stem-cells does not equal the destruction of a life. Supporters of stem-cell research believe that embryos composed of only a few cells that are being stored in a lab are not alive, because they are frozen. They may have once had the potential to live, and though this potential was lost, it was not lost because of stem-cell research. Many of the cells that are being used come from ended pregnancies when a life would not develop anyway. If an embryo were to go unused, why not use it instead to save another life? There are actually over 110,000 embryos being stored in the United States alone, with no life in sight for them (Robinson). These embryos are not alive, and should be used instead of discarded. To make this debate even easier, stem cells may in the near future come from, for example, the ACT developed "embryos". With the ACT's embryos, the scientists started with human eggs, though they were not fertilized with sperm; these eggs were then coaxed into fertilization. The eggs were kept in a culture and seemed to develop like normal embryos, though they could probably never be able to develop fully into a child (Lauritzen). Writer Paul Lauritzen asks about the pro-life statements that say an embryo is a "person from conception", "What sense does this make when we are dealing with an organism that can only be loosely defined as an embryo and which was not conceived at all?" It can be seen in both of these cases that stem-cell research should be not only allowed, but also encouraged. It could mean hundreds of thousands of saved lives every year.

Not only do people disagree about whether embryonic cells should be used in medicine, they ask if the process that is being undergone is really cloning. Is it cloning when a scientist determines the fate of a cell? It may be seen as so to some, because scientists are turning a cell into something he or she has directed it to. Others do not see it as cloning, because what is seen in the end is not an identical copy of what was used in the beginning. There is a definite distinction between the two types of cloning, and many believe that only reproductive cloning, not medical cloning, is wrong. This weighty issue has even made its way to the forefront of medical debate in the government.

President Bush's Council on Bioethics met in January 2002 to discuss the issue of cloning stem-cells. The council made a unanimous decision that cloning a human being has the potential to be quite dangerous and should be outlawed by Congress (Safire). But what about the "cloning" of stem-cells? Should that be outlawed as well? Actually, at the same time as the President's Council met, a group of leading scientists met to discuss similar issues dealing with stem-cells. The scientists agree that the cloning of humans should be out of the question, but they saw no risk in cloning cells in a lab for medical purposes (Safire). The only argument with this is that of using adult cells rather than embryonic cells, since the ACT's method is not widely used yet. All humans have stem cells. For example, there are stem cells in our bone marrow that continue to produce blood throughout one's life ("Stem Cells: A Primer"). Embryos also have stem-cells, which have proven to be much more useful. An embryonic stem cell has the potential to develop into almost any organ or tissue in a human being. These stem cells are the basis of life in an embryo, because they have not been directed toward a certain function yet and therefore have an almost unlimited potential ("Stem Cells: A Primer"). So, with all of this information, what has the President said about this issue? He could possibly allow a certain cloning of stem cells or he could ban it all together.

President Bush addressed the Nation in the fall



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