Unlike most cells, stem cells are capable of developing into all 200 tissue cell types found in the human body. This ability gives them the potential for cures to a seemingly limitless range of illnesses ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to diabetes to spinal cord injuries.
However, stem-cell research has long been mired in controversy because the extraction of embryonic stem cells, which are more versatile than their adult counterparts, results in the destruction of the embryo.
For many social conservatives, including President George W. Bush, this practice amounts to the destruction of human life, therefore making embryonic stem-cell research immoral.
Due to this fact, federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research during the Bush administration has been virtually non-existent. Instead, states, private companies and corporations, have had to fill this financial gap.
UC Irvine’s Stem Cell Research Center, in particular, has had to rely mainly on non-federal funds. This year alone, the center will receive millions in grants from California state funding.
According to Dr. Sidney Golub, chair of UCI’s Human Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee, state funding is vital.
‘If it weren’t for the state, we’d be out of business,’ Golub said.
On Nov. 20, researchers from Japan’s Kyoto University and the University of Wisconsin announced a breakthrough that may lead to an influx of federal funding for stem cell research.
The teams, working independently, used a new technique, somatic cell dedifferentiation, to convert ordinary skin cells into stem cells that appear as adaptable as their embryonic equivalents.
Immediately, scientists and commentators alike hailed it as the ‘ethically uncomplicated’ way to benefit from the use of stem cells.
In a recent Wired Magazine article, Marcy Darnovsky, the associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society, referred to the discovery saying, ‘[It will] disconnect the whole stem cell debate from the culture war.’
In Europe, the German government, which had previously sought a European Union ban on embryonic stem-cell research, pledged that it would double the amount of government funds available.
Here in the United States, a White House press release stated that ‘the President is very pleased to see the important advances in ethical stem-cell research.’
This breakthrough could defuse the stem cell controversy once and for all.
According to the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank, the field could ‘[develop] thriving and robust stem-cell medicine [in a way that] will bridge, rather than exacerbate, our moral differences.’
However, many individuals, including the scientists who developed the new stem cells, caution that it is too soon to end embryonic stem cell research.
Researchers are unsure whether injecting the new stem cells