Stem Cells for Dummies: A Few Questions Answered

The phrase ‘stem cell’ regularly surfaces in day-to-day discussions. To many, the phrase is fleeting, obscure and optimistic, yet capable of inspiring caution and sometimes fear.
News anchors throw it around, it is in the press, on our ballots, on picket signs and on the lips of advocacy groups. Unfortunately, very few people know much about stem cells and those who do not simply nod their head in an effort to hide the confused look in their eyes.
Even more unfortunate is the fact that American citizens will be voting on the ethical issues brought forth by stem cell technology without a decent understanding of the scientific concepts behind them.
Since just about everyone reading this is a student at a top scientific-minded university, it might be a good idea to brush up a little on stem cell knowledge.
So, without further ado, I will offer a simple Question-and-Answer regarding stem cells.

What is a stem cell?

‘Stem cell’ is an umbrella term used to categorize a group of cells. Stem cells come in different varieties and might be specific to a particular tissue type.
Usually, when people throw around the term ‘stem cell’ they are referring to embryonic stem cells. A stem cell is a cell that is capable of dividing asymmetrically into two daughter cells that are not exactly alike. The overwhelming majority of cells in your body cannot do this.
This may not sound too compelling, but consider that you originated from one cell. The clear cells lining the cornea of your eye and the skin cells gripping this paper originally came from the same cell. A stem cell line can grow and mature into different cell types and tissues.

Why do people associate stem cells with abortion?

Both issues pose similar or parallel ethical questions, but it is not necessary to use aborted fetuses to obtain embryonic stem cells. Yes, one can be both pro-life and pro-stem cell research.

Medically, what are the potential uses for stem cells?

Stem cells can give rise to any tissue. There are types of tissues in adults that do not re-grow, or that have the potential to do so very slowly.
Neural (brain and spinal cord) tissue is an example. If scientists can figure out how to trigger neural stem cells to regrow, it may be possible to make paralyzed patients walk again or to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or Dementia.
There also exists the possibility of growing tissues for implantation, such as skin for a burn victim or an organ transplant for a cancer patient. The potential uses are numerous and it is likely that more possibilities will come forth once more is known about stem cells.

How are human embryonic stem cells obtained?

Human embryonic stem cells are obtained from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, an extremely small spherical cluster of cells present about five days after fertilization. The embryo is destroyed in the process.

Do scientists have to create new embryos specifically to destroy them?

Yes and no. There are already over 400,000 extra embryos that have been created via in-vitro fertilization that will never be implanted into surrogate mothers. Essentially, there are a lot of potential resources.
For articles concerning the view of ethics in research and the use of embryos, look up ‘Stem Cells’ under the New University Web site:

What governmental barriers are slowing stem cell research?

Currently, the Bush Administra-tion is blocking the allocation of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.
It is also illegal to sacrifice embryos for the creation of new stem cell lines for research and current studies are limited to a set of two-dozen government-approved human embryonic stem cell lines. Cell lines do go bad over time.

Where do presidential candidates stand on human embryonic stem cell research?

When asked about the issue during a debate, almost all of the Republican candidates were against federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research.
The exceptions were Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, though both of them exhibited reservations about the extent to which they would support such research.
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are outspoken advocates of embryonic stem cell research and have a good track record of supporting it in the senate.

Ryon Graf is a fourth-year genetics major. If you have science-related questions that you would like to propose, please send them to Questions about evolution, intelligent design, cancer, stem cells and ethics are especially welcome.