Student Questions About Stem Cell Research

  • 1. Why is stem cell research so controversial?

Embryonic stem cell research is the cause of the controversy.  Why, because it involves the destruction of a human life.  The removal of the stem cells from a living human embryo causes the death of the embryo. This is why embryonic stem cell research is considered morally and ethically objectionable by some. There is however no moral objections to adult stem cell research or cord blood cell research.

  • 2. What is the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells?

Adult stem cells exist in our own body and provide a natural repair mechanism for many tissues of the body. It is entirely acceptable to take stem cells from a patient’s body for his own use to treat his or her disease.  Adult stem cells are found in various tissues and organs of the body such as fat, bone marrow, skin, brain, dental pulp, muscle, etc.  Patients who receive their own stem cells in transplantation will not experience immune rejection.

Embryonic stem cell research on the other hand involves the killing of a living human embryo. Embryonic stem cells have not achieved one beneficial treatment in human patients to date. Embryonic stem cells are difficult to control and can develop into the wrong type of cells. For instance, implanted embryonic stem cells have turned into bone or skin and other tissues when researchers had hoped they would turn into brain cells.  They have a tendency to tumour formation. Patients receiving embryonic stem cells would likely have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives.

  • 3. What are stem cells being used for right now?

Adult stem cells have been providing beneficial treatments in human patients for many years. Other ethical sources of stem cells like stem cells from umbilical cord blood after the birth of a baby are already being used in treatment.

Adult stem cells have helped patients with heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, stroke  and many other illnesses.  At the website www.stemcellresearch.org, you will find a list of 73 medical conditions where patients have been helped by a clinical trial or treatment using adult or cord blood stem cells.

 Go online  and read about Jennifer Molson, a patient with multiple sclerosis who was treated with adult stem cells by Dr. Harry Atkins of the Ottawa Health Research Institute.  A success story right here in Ottawa.

 Another patient, Anne Scott suffering with myasthenia gravis was treated with adult stem cells by Dr. Harry Atkins of the Ottawa health Research Institute and her disease is now in remission.

(Ottawa Sun, November 5, 2006)

Patrizia Durante was diagnosed with leukemia while pregnant. Her baby was delivered two months ahead of time so they could treat Patrizia with higher doses of chemotherapy. Patrizia became severely ill while waiting for a bone marrow transplant after her daughter’s birth in 2001. 

Her oncologist Dr. Laneuville decided to transplant the stem cells from her daughter’s umbilical cord blood into Patrizia’s body. Mrs. Durante’s treatment with her daughter’s cord blood cells resulted in her cancer going into remission. ( Montreal) See www.muhcfoundation.com/en/patrizia_durante.

Dennis turner, a patient with Parkinson’s disease underwent treatment with adult stem cells (10 years ago). This treatment allowed Mr. Turner to enjoy five good years with a marked improvement in his condition. His symptoms went into remission for four or five years. He was not however cured and his condition has now continued to deteriorate. Mr. Turner would be willing to undergo treatment with adult stem cells again to slow the progression of his disease.

Patients with type 1 diabetes have also been helped by adult stem cells as have other patients.

  • 4. What can stem cell research potentially lead to?

Adult stem cell research holds great potential to help patients and provide successful treatments for diseases. The website www.stemcellresearch.org   has a fact sheet listing the 73 conditions for which adult stem cell treatments or clinical trials have helped human patients. Adult stem cell research offers great promise for further therapeutic benefits.

Embryonic stem cell research has not so far helped a single human patient.

  • 5. What are the obstacles that must be overcome before the potential uses of stem cells in therapy will be realized?

More clinical trials are needed using adult or cord blood stem cells. More funding should be directed toward adult stem cell research which is morally and ethically acceptable. As for obstacles, adult stem cells are said to be less flexible and may be more difficult to reprogram to form other tissue types.  They can sometimes be difficult to obtain in large numbers.

The obstacles with embryonic stem cells have already been mentioned in answer to question 2.

  • 6. Why don’t we just study adult stem cells, if they aren’t as controversial?

There is much hype surrounding embryonic stem cell research. We are told it holds the key to cures for many diseases in spite of having delivered nothing so far to help human patients.  Some scientists and others are not opposed to the destruction of living human embryos for research purposes. Dr. Jack Wilke of the Life Issues Institute offers the following as an explanation to why some are pushing embryonic stem cell research when the successes have come from adult stem cells; “For scientists, the unknown is a challenge, a horizon that needs to be explored. They want to boldly go where no man has gone before. Whether or not palatable results seem reasonably obtainable is irrelevant.  Exploring the unknown is a goal in itself. They are however faced with the obvious fact that private money will not subsidize such questionable investigations. This is why there is tremendous pressure from scientists, the liberal media and, very clearly a powerful and well-financed biotech industry to appropriate tax money for such research.”

There is much confusion surrounding stem cell research among the public. When they hear media reports concerning breakthroughs or successful treatments with stem cells, they assume or think of embryonic stem cells. They know very little about the differences between adult and embryonic stem cells. 

We should remember the principle that the end doesn’t justify the means.

  • 7. Have any diseases been cured with either embryonic or adult stem cells in humans?

As mentioned previously, adult stem cells have helped many patients. Embryonic stem cells have not helped a single human patient. 

  • 8. Are stem cells safe or effective?

There are many difficulties to overcome with embryonic stem cell research. One being that the cells are difficult to control, the other being their capacity to forms tumours. Such risks are not present with adult stem cell treatments. Remember that any type of treatment or surgery carries certain risks.

I would like to point out that you once were an embryo. Causing the death of one living human at the embryonic stage to potentially help another devalues and commodifies human life.

Again, the end doesn’t justify the means.

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