Stem Cell Research

Article Four

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Tina Steele, MA

Tina Steele is a Science and Medical correspondent who will help you to understand the roles of conventional and alternative, or complimentary, medicine in creating and maintaining health and wellness.
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Stem Cell Research - The Whys and Wherefores

At the Democratic National Convention, Ron Regan, Jr., made a speech pleading the cause of human stem cell research. He said, "There are those who would stand in the way of this remarkable future, who would deny the federal funding so crucial to basic research. They argue that interfering with the development of even the earliest-stage embryo, even one that will never be implanted in a womb and will never develop into an actual fetus, is tantamount to murder." He went on to say "Éit does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many. And how can we affirm life if we abandon those whose own lives are so desperately at risk." What he was referring to was the politicizing of the science by the present Administration, which has purloined the issue to use as fuel to fire its obsessive opposition to abortion.

Stem cell research has become polemic, and as a result, much needed funding has been slow in coming to shore up its very promising future. This is not to say that the science would have progressed sufficiently in time to save Ron Regan, Jr's father (the former president, Ronald Regan), from the ravages of Alzheimer's, but it may have. That it came too late is in no doubt, but there are some extremely encouraging signs to indicate that stem cells may eventually be able to repair brain cells damaged by diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. And much, much more.

Thus, in order to provide you with the necessary information to participate in the ongoing debate, let us start from the beginning, by examining both what stem cells are and what they can do.


Stem Cells are unlike any other kind of cell in the body, in that they have the potential to become any one of many different cell types and act as a means of repairing damaged organs and tissues. They have three main characteristics:


1. They can divide and renew themselves over long periods of time, perhaps even indefinitely (as long as the person is alive).

2. They are "unspecialized" (called undifferentiated) cells i.e. they do not start out as muscle, nerve, heart, etc., they are just 'blank'.

3. They can become specialized (differentiated) cells, e.g. heart, lung, nerve, etc.

There are distinct types of stem cells; these are embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. The stem cells can be further differentiated into embryonic germ cells and fetal stem cells. There are also umbilical cord blood stem cells, and placental stem cells. Of these several kinds of stem cells, the most versatile are those that only exist for the first few divisions following fertilization, and contain all the genetic information necessary to create every cell in the human body, including the placenta; these are called totipotent cells. In as few as three to four more cell divisions, the cells then become known as pluripotent, and although still very versatile they can no longer become placental cells. The next phase is known as multipotent, which means that while the cells can still become several other cell types, they are now somewhat limited in number. A good example of a multipotent cell would be a hematopoietic cell, in other words a blood stem cell that can become a different type of blood cells (red corpuscles, platelets, etc), but would be unable to develop into muscle cells. The final stage would be when the cells have become differentiated, and have thus become committed to being something specific.


Although the science has come a long way, since University of Wisconsin-Madison biologist, James Thompson, writing in the journal 'Science', reported the first ever isolation of human embryonic stem cells, back in November of 1998, scientists are still struggling to force cell differentiation. Because stem cells do not spontaneously differentiate into any one of the 220 different cells types, researchers rely on three basic techniques, influenced by two specific factors: external and internal:



• Chemicals secreted by other differentiated cells affect the molecules in the microenvironment (culture), providing the essential nutrients to promote differentiation

• Physical proximity with already differentiated cells, i.e. pluripotent allowed to clump together form "embryoid bodies" and can become, for example, nerve or tissue cells.


• By inserting specific genes to direct differentiation


You have probably heard mention of stem cell lines, but not known what they are: Essentially, cells are taken (or harvested) from four to seven day old embryos, when it comprises no more than about 100 cells altogether. The scientist will take cells from the inner most part of the embryo and place them in a culture dish, with nutrients specifically designed to promote cell growth. A cell line is established when healthy cells continue to grow and multiply, without differentiating. As they continue this process, and each culture dish becomes full, cells are transferred into yet more culture dishes. The original thirty or so cells can yield millions - these are the lines.


Embryonic stem cells have caused considerable controversy, because they are harvested from embryos, developed mostly from human eggs fertilized in vitro (in other words in a test tube), but which are destroyed as a consequence. They are NEVER implanted in any woman's womb, which goes a long way toward negating the abortion/pro-life debate. When George W. Bush took office, in January of 2001, his opposition to stem cell research was already well documented. He was so opposed to it that in the February of the same year he put all Federal funding of stem cell research on hold. However, on August 9, 2001, in a political move designed to appease growing opposition to the moratorium, and even some of his own colleagues, Bush announced that he would permit funding but only for 60 embryonic stem cell lines, all of which had existed before he came into office; some lines had been around for upwards of twenty-five years. And while some of the older lines had come from aborted or spontaneously aborted fetuses, even Washington D.C.'s Catholic Georgetown University is using them in research, with the tacit blessing of the Church, which understands that the original fetuses were not aborted for research purposes, and also because the ultimate goal of the new science is to benefit mankind. Evidence of this Administration's "moral" aversion to embryonic stem cell research can be found in the disparate levels of the funding since it voiced its displeasure: $10 million versus the $170 million given to adult stem cell research.

The distinct advantages of embryonic stem cells are that there is an almost limitless supply, and they are extremely easy to grow in culture. The biggest downside being that of the potential for a body rejecting the newly transplanted cells.

Adult stem cells are far fewer in number and considerably harder to isolate; largely because they are only found among already differentiated cells throughout the body. An enormous number of adult stem cells are needed for replacement therapies. However, they also show considerable promise for cell-based therapies, because once harvested from the host body, grown then reintroduced, they do not pose the same threat of rejection that embryonic stem cells do.


Because of their ability to become so many different cell types, stem cells provide limitless potential to treat a myriad of diseases: from organ regeneration to immune system reconstruction. Currently, leukemia patients account for some 75% of the stem cell transplants facilitated by the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP), but there are also many other diseases that are and will be treatable using the science. Of potential successes, Type 1 Diabetes may soon be curable by pancreatic islet cells recreated to provide insulin, and paraplegics may have their injured spinal cord cells replaced, enabling them to walk again. Heart attack victims may regenerate damaged tissue, and once again hear their hearts beat strongly. It is possibly a Brave New World, but stem cell research could well prove to be as truly Earth changing as was the discovery of penicillin, if not more so. All we need now is enough funding to keep the dream alive, and perhaps sooner, rather than later, we will begin to see near miraculous cures to otherwise incurable diseases.

Tina Steele, MA


For more information, I would suggest you visit the following sites:

NIH Stem Cell Information Website

The Stem Cell Research Foundation

The Debate -

Diseases Treatable by Stem Cell transplant

Mayo Clinic's Overview of Stem Cell Research & Treatments:

Umbilical Cord Blood Stem Cells Information:

Medline Resource Directory:

For a really good graphic presentation of stem cell line formation:

The Georgetown University Story:
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Editors note:

We are honored to have Tina Steele's participation and contributions to Pathfinders and look forward to learning of the ways our readers have benefited from her articles and guidance on healthcare.
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