Stem cells are primitive cells found in embryos, fetuses, and recently adults that can grow into 210 types of cells in the body. James A. Thomson, an embryologist at the University of Wisconsin, and John D. Gearhart of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine announced on Thursday, November 8 1998 that they and their colleagues had isolated the cell.
Scientists have tried for years to find stem cells because of their great medical value. Diseases such as Diabetes, Bone Marrow Cancer, Chronic Heart disease, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s disease are just a few that could all be cured with the use of stem cells. As of May 18 2001, scientists have grown blood cells, blood vessel cells, bone cartilage, neurons, and skeletal muscle in petri dishes and continue to grow many other types of cells. This is encouraging news because a lot of diseases involve the death or dysfunction of a single type of cell. Scientists believe that the introduction of healthy cells into a patient will restore lost function.
Since researchers have discovered how to isolate and culture stem cells, they have to figure out how to coax these cells into becoming the specialized cells and tissues that they need for transplant into patients. Discovering this process could lead to better means of preventing and treating birth defects and cancer. Also, it would produce an almost endless supply of human cells and tissues in the laboratory to test experimental drugs on. Even though the benefits are enormous, many people are against research of stem cells because of where scientists must get them.
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The most effective stem cells are from day old embryos, which must be destroyed to obtain them. Many conservative federal legislators and antiabortion activists are against funding research for that reason. The Coalition of Americans for research Ethics states, ‘While we in no way dispute the fact that the ability to treat or heal suffering persons is a great good, we also recognize that not all methods of achieving a desired good are morally or legally justifiable. If this were not so, the medically accepted and legally required practices of informed consent and of seeking to do no harm to the patient could be ignored whenever some ‘greater good’s e ems achievable.’ Also, stem cells could easily be used to create ‘designer babies’. ‘De singer babies’ are babies genetically engineered to have specific traits, such as hair and eye color, height, and weight that will become a permanent part of the child’s lineage.
Another issue that has been brought up by the discovery of stem cells is human cloning. Stem cells have to be transplanted into a patient and as with any transplant there is a risk of the patient rejecting the cells. If a person’s DNA could be cloned however, the cells would be a genetic match, no risk of rejection. For example, a child with bone marrow cancer could have their DNA cloned and implanted in an egg without any DNA. That egg is then used to create the embryo. Doctors can retrieve stem cells from the embryo and grow bone marrow that is a perfect match for the child.
No risk of rejection, no donors. Former President Clinton banned human cloning in 1997, and on July 19 2001 a House panel approved legislation to make it a crime to clone humans for reproduction or embryo research with penalties of up to 10 years in prison and 1 million fines. The legislation is not a law yet but if it becomes a law it would make the use of stem cells and stem cell research illegal. A different bill opting to make embryonic clones for research, such as to derive stem cells to study possible treatments for serious diseases was voted down.
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Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith said, ‘If we are to allow human embryos to be cloned, it would be impossible to control what is done with them.’ Other representatives have different feelings, Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said outlawing human cloning for research would ‘cut off vitally important biomedical research that has the potential of helping millions of people.’ One more political problem stem cell researchers are facing is a Congressional ban on federally funded human embryo research. This ban has been in place since 1994. On January 15, 1995 the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) ruled that such funds may be needed to support human embryonic stem cell research, this does not allow money to be used for the destruction of embryos though, so it is still necessary for the ban to be fully lifted.