Tuesday, March 10, 2009

News-day Tuesday - Embryonic Stem Cell Debate

So I'm going to try to take Breeze's advice and have "theme days" to organize what I post about. I've decided that Tuesdays will be "News-day Tuesday" where I give my take on issue(s) currently in the news. So here goes:

"President Barack Obama will reverse the U.S. government’s ban on funding stem-cell research today and pledge to 'use sound, scientific practice and evidence, instead of dogma' to guide federal policy, an adviser said. ..."

I'm sure this story is old news to most of you by now, but I feel I'm in a unique position to comment on it since I actually DO research on embryonic stem cells. (From mice in my case though, not humans.)

First, some points of clarification.

Stem cells are an area of interest becaue they can turn into different cell types and thus might be used to treat degenerative diseases or restore damaged tissue.

There are different kinds of stem cells. Some are adult stem cells, the kind we all have in our bodies. These can be used to turn into a large variety of cell types, but normally not all cell types.

Embryonic stem cells (ES cells), are those from an embryo (as the name suggests) and those can turn into ANY cell type.

Also, it is my understanding that there are already government approved ES cell lines but that they are not as good as others being used in private research.

Another important point is that researchers have successfully transformed adult stem cells to give them similar morphing power to ES cells. They call these iPS cells (induced Pluripotent Stem cells). Unfortunately they still haven't worked out all the kinks in these cells, and the genes they use to transform the cells are also involved in tumor/cancer formation.

Ok, now on to the current story:

My gut reaction is to be in favor of Obama reversing the ban. This is in line with my "I want science to cure death so I can live forever" philosophy, as it potentialy removes a road block to life extending research. But, as many have pointed out already, there exists the ethical question of "does using ES cells sacrifice innocent human life?" Since I work with mouse ES cells every day, it's easier for me to justify in my head that ES cells are "just cells." Though in the case of human ES cells there's still a nagging uncertainty in the back of my head. On one hand, yes, given the right conditions an embryo can develop into a fully functioning human being, that's where we all came from, but on the other hand, the embryos people want to use are destined to be disposed of anyway, so perhaps using that potential life for good is better than letting the life die in vain. So even if I consider the ES cells human life and not "just cells" I still am uncertain.

From a different perspective, the use of ES cells versus iPS cells both have technical advantages and disadvantes.

For ES cells, you are probably going to be dealing with cells from one person being used in another person's body (this can work, like in organ transplants and whatnot) but the body recognizes cells with a different genetic make up as foreign and the immune system tends to attack them. This is overcome with transplants by trying to find close matches and also by using immunosuppressants while the organs are being integrated. The immune response may limit the utility of ES cell usage to the point that it's not really feasible. Who knows?

For iPS cells, you have the advantage of being able to harvest them from the same person who will be recieving them, thus immune response is not an issue. However, there's still the threat of possibly giving the person cancer based on the current form of iPS cell technology. Also, iPS cells may not behave quite the same way as ES cells, so their response in the body might not be as good.

In the end I think that even if ES cells do not end up being used for therapy, the basic research with them will give us a better understanding of how stem cells work and is likely to result in research results faster. As I said, there is a nagging concern in the back of my head, but it hasn't been enough to totally change my mind.

If I am ever in a position where I'll be working with actual human ES cells, I'd probably have to do some soul searching to decide if I really truly think that this is ok.

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