Stem cell research needs funding to progress

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A federal district judge granted a preliminary injunction last week to cease funding of embryonic stem cell research. This injunction overrides an executive order issued by President Barack Obama last year that allowed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund this kind of research. The judge’s decision is regarded by some as simply a way for fringe extremists to hinder scientific research. Though I would not be so extreme, I agree that embryonic stem cell research should be funded by the NIH.

In order to understand why embryonic stem cells are so important, it is important to first understand what stem cells are and why they have so much potential. Stem cells are blank cells. The vast majority of cells in the human body are highly specialized. Skin cells contain exactly the parts to be skin cells and nothing more. The same goes for liver cells, heart muscular cells, and so on. Stem cells, however, contain all of the information and parts to become any cell in the body. Adult stem cells — though they exist — are limited in scope. They fall into one of three categories: mesodermic, endodermic, and ectodermic. Stem cells in each of these categories can only become certain types of cells. Very complex organs, like the skin, require multiple or all three types of cells to properly form themselves. This reduces the utility of adult stem cells.

In order to harvest embryonic stem cells directly, researchers first artificially inseminate an egg — they create a “test-tube baby.” However, once this egg has undergone the natural processes of cell division and expanded to between 50 and 150 cells, the mass, now called a blastocyst, is broken apart, and the embryonic stem cells at its core are extracted. Unfortunately, current techniques require the destruction of the blastocyst in order to extract the stem cells.

It is this process that is objected to by both scientists and pundits. In general, objectors believe that human life begins at conception, when the sperm meets and combines its DNA with an egg. Since human life begins at this point, it is immoral to perform the extraction procedure since it destroys human life. It is important to note that the arguments against stem cell research are not exactly the same as those against abortion, as some opponents of abortion are proponents of stem cell research. The difference, and seeming clash of ideologies, comes from the results of in vitro fertilization, where, for technical reasons, there are extra embryos that would otherwise be destroyed.

It is also important to note that this debate has recently fallen to the wayside. In 2008, scientists at UCLA were able to transform skin cells into stem cells. These cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, are — according to the researchers — “virtually indistinguishable from human embryonic stem cells.” Though the capability of iPS cells to completely replace embryonic stem cells has not been verified, this method of creating stem cells may completely remove the need for the previously described extraction technique to be used. However, there is some concern over the technical requirements to create these cells, as performing the transformation into iPS cells requires successful genetic manipulation.

Even discounting the advances in iPS, it is absurd to completely cease funding of embryonic stem cell research. Further research into embryonic stem cells may reveal ways of extracting embryonic stem cells without destroying the blastocyst, and thus preserving the human life contained within. In fact, this is a logical path of research for government-funded projects to pursue. With the ability to extract stem cells from blastocysts, a blastocyst can be artificially shrunk and reverted to a previous stage in the development cycle. This would allow a single embryo to not only persist and continue to contribute stem cells for some time, but would allow researchers to grow replacement organs for children born after the donating embryo is implanted into the mother’s uterus.

Between the possible benefits of stem cell research, which are widely known and far too numerous to list here, and the potential for inventing techniques that can circumvent the destruction of the blastocyst, there is no convincing reason that embryonic stem cell research should be suspended, at least until iPS cells are proven to be equivalent to their embryonic counterparts.