Stem cells can be found in almost every multicellular living organism on the planet.
It plays a crucial and irreplaceable part in our growth from embryonic development to adulthood.
Stem cells are classified as undifferentiated cells, one that has yet to evolve or be assigned to a specific function by the host body.
A stem cell would continue to divide, through the process of mitosis, until it eventually matures into a differentiated cell, which would either be committed as a building block for the hosts, or used in a regenerative function.
There are various terms are used to classify different types of human stem cells. However, the three most common ones are:
(i) Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells are ordinarily obtained from tissues harvested from the epithelial layer (blastoderm) and fluid-filled cavity (blastocoel) of the blastula during the blastocyst stage of a fetal development period, usually four to six days after fertilization. Primarily sourced from in vitro fertilized embryos.
(ii) Somatic Stem Cells
Somatic cells are harvested from adult human tissues with active regenerative cycles, such as skin, lining of the small intestine, blood vessels, liver, brain and bone marrow.
(iii) Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS cells)
iPS cells are created by reprogramming ordinary cells using RNA virus. These cells undergo gradual changes that strip them of their original cellular memories and eventually mimic the malleable characteristics of embryonic stem cells. iPS production remains an unstable process and regularly produces unforeseen attributes.
All three sources of stem cells offer differing growth and maturity characteristics, which influence their potential usage. However, embryonic stem cells are regarded as the superior of the three.
Scientists have been aware of stem cells and the potential it offers for almost four decades, but the first real breakthrough only came in 1998, when a team lead by Dr. James Thompson from the University of Wisconsin discovered a method to isolate and propagate the cells from human embryos. Despite the huge potential behind stem cell technology, Dr. Thompson’s breakthrough raises serious moral questions over the use of human embryos to harvest stem cells.
Difficult questions, such as the right of the embryo or of its legal status as a person - ordinarily heard in any debate involving the issue of abortion – became a hot topic of discussion. Does the potential benefit of this technology to humanity justifies the ‘farming’ and post-harvesting destruction of these embryos? The discovery of undifferentiated somatic stem cells, and more recently, iPS cells, have lessened the demand for embryonic stem cells, but it still remains the most sought after for its simpler properties and more expansive development potential.
But why is there such excitement over the stem cell technology?
The science of stem cell technology offers the opportunity to understand the biological and chemical mechanics of human development, which in turn will offer an understanding of how diseases develop and of the methods required to suppress them. It also presents an opportunity for the advancement of the still new field of regenerative medicine - for cell, tissues, limbs and organs.
Mastery of these stem cell technologies will revolutionize modern medicine. Diseases (such as cancer, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis), limbic defects (birth or accident) and damaged organs would all be curable. We can grow what is needed, and prevent what isn’t. Even Oscar Goldman's famous line, "We can rebuild him...we have the technology,"no longer seem as far-fetched.
Nevertheless, full mastery of stem cell technology remains decades away. Hurdles are aplenty, and there are huge gaps in our knowledge. But there have been some practical, life-saving even, application of stem cell technology. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, hematopoietic stem cells (blood forming cells) from the bone marrow and umbilical cord blood are used in an estimated 50,000 hematopoietic cell transplants annually worldwide to treat patients with life-threatening malignant and non-malignant diseases such as,
• Leukemias and lymphomas
• Severe aplastic anemia and other marrow failure states
• SCID and other inherited immune system disorders
• Hurler's syndrome and other inherited metabolic disorders
• Familial erythrophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis and other histiocytic disorders
Stem cell research has seen its potential for progress being curtailed drastically by a myriad of political, religious and ethical issues - and there is even opposition from within the medical community itself. In 2001, former President Bush limited federal funding of stem cell research to 21 non-embryonic stem cell lines - a limitation which was revoked by President Obama in 2009, expanding the cell lines for federally funded research. The debate does not appear to be reaching a conclusion anytime soon, and serves as yet another divisive political tool.
2012 Democratic Presidential Nominee
Current President of the United States
President Obama signed an executive order (Executive Order 13505 - Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells) on March 9, 2009, to reverse former President Bush’s August 2001 order, which limits research to 21 stem cell lines (NIH Stem Cell Registry currently has 135 eligible lines) and a blanket ban federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. The new order, however, does not lift the ban on funding for research on developing new lines of stem cells. The executive order charges the National Institute of Health to formulate revised guidelines on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research within 120 days, which it subsequently issued on July 7, 2009.
Obama’s decision found unlikely support from Nancy Reagan, who released the following statement:
“I'm very grateful that President Obama has lifted the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. These new rules will now make it possible for scientists to move forward. I urge researchers to make use of the opportunities that are available to them, and to do all they can to fulfill the promise that stem cell research offers. Countless people, suffering from many different diseases, stand to benefit from the answers stem cell research can provide. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to do everything in our power to find cures for these diseases - and soon. As I've said before, time is short, and life is precious.”
However, the new NIH Guidelines was challenged by the Law of Life Project legal team (Dr. James L. Sherley, Dr. Theresa Deisher, Christian Medical Association, Alliance Defense Fund, Nightlight Christian Adoptions and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher) and a complaint was subsequently filed in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia stating that the guidelines violated the 1995 Dickey-Wicker Amendment which states,
(a) None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for--
(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
(2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under 45 CFR 46.204(b) and section 498(b) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 289g(b)).
(b) For purposes of this section, the term `human embryo or embryos' includes any organism, not protected as a human subject under 45 CFR 46 as of the date of the enactment of this Act, that is derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning, or any other means from one or more human gametes or human diploid cells.
Federal District Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on August 23, 2010 and granted a preliminary injunction halting all federal funding for embryonic stem cell research while he deliberate on the matter. In his ruling, Judge Royce noted that,
“Despite defendants' attempt to separate the derivation of ESCs (embryonic stem cells) from research on the ESCs, the two cannot be separated. Derivation of ESCs from an embryo is an integral step in conducting ESC research… Simply because ESC research involves multiple steps does not mean that each step is a separate 'piece of research' that may be federally funded, provided the step does not result in the destruction of an embryo. If one step or 'piece of research' of an ESC research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is precluded from receiving federal funding by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.”
The decision effectively paints all federally sponsored research from 1996, amounting to approximately $546 million, as violating the Dicky-Wicker Amendment. However, a follow up suit by the plaintiffs in July 2010 that sought to permanently ban federal funding for embryonic stem cell therapy were thrown out by Chief Judge Lamberth. In September 2010, Chief Judge Lamberth refused a request by the government to lift the injunction for federal funding pending his ruling.
The Justice Department filed an emergency request with the Court of Appeals for the district to countermand Judge Lamberth’s decision, citing disruption to existing research, which began prior to the Chief Judge’s ruling. The request was granted on September 9, 2009.
The Court of Appeals ruled again in April 2011, this time in favor of the defendants. In a 2-1 decision, Judge Douglas Ginsburg and Judge Thomas Griffith wrote a stinging commentary on Judge Lamberth’s earlier decision to allow the preliminary injunction.
“We need not wade into this circuit split today because, as in Davis, as detailed below, in this case a preliminary injunction is not appropriate even under the less demanding sliding-scale analysis. We review the district court’s balancing of the four factors for abuse of discretion…
…The Amendment, reenacted annually as a rider to appropriations legislation, prohibits the expenditure of federal funds both for “the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes” and for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed…
It is the latter ban that the plaintiffs' claim is violated by the 2009 Guidelines. Determining whether hESC research is “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed” requires determining the meaning of “research.” The plaintiffs contend that all hESC research constitutes research in which human embryos are destroyed and that the Amendment accordingly prohibits federal funding thereof. The Government counters that the derivation of hESCs and the subsequent use of those cells, although both research, are not part of the same—and prohibited—research…
… the plain meaning of the Amendment is easily grasped. See id. (“If the [statute] has a plain and unambiguous meaning, our inquiry ends so long as the resulting statutory scheme is coherent and consistent.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Accordingly, “that is the end of the matter; for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.” Chevron, 467 U.S. at 842-43.
Because the plaintiffs have not shown they are likely to succeed on the merits, we conclude they are not entitled to preliminary injunctive relief. We reach this conclusion under the sliding scale approach to the preliminary injunction factors; a fortiori we would reach the same conclusion if
likelihood of success on the merits is an independent requirement. Therefore, the preliminary injunction entered by the district court must be and is Vacated”
Chief Judge Lamberth also ruled in favor of the defendant shortly thereafter, citing the ruling of the Court of Appeals as the basis of his judgment. The matter remains far from settled, however, as the plaintiffs have indicated that they might bring the case to the Supreme Court.
“Today with the executive order I’m about to sign, we would bring the change that so many scientists, and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones that hope for and fought for these past eight years. We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic stem cell research.
We also vigorously support scientists who pursue this research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield. At this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown and it should not be overstate. But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand and possibly cure some of our most devastating diseases and conditions. To regenerate a severed spinal cord and lift someone from a wheelchair. To spur insulin production and spare a child from a lifetime of needles. To treat Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease and others that affect millions of Americans and the people who love them. But that potential would not reveal themselves on its own. Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research, from years of lonely trial and errors, much of which never bears fruit. And from a government willing to support that work. From live saving vaccines to pioneering cancer treatments to the sequencing of the human genome – that is the story of scientific progress in America.
When government fail to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues goes unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work, and those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives.
As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the humanity and conscience to do so responsibly. It’s a difficult and delicate balance and many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about or strongly oppose this research. And I understand their concerns, and I believe we must respect their point of view. But after much discussion, debate and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans from across the political spectrum and from all background and beliefs have come to a consensus that we should pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided. That is a conclusion with which I agree. And that is why I am signing this executive order. And why I hope Congress will act on a bipartisan basis to provide further support for this research.”
March 9, 2011; President Obama announces the signing of Executive Order 13505 - Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells
Romney is a strong supporter of stem cell research, but he is against the practice of cloning or embryo farming as a source for cells. He is also against federal funds being used for embryonic stem cell research.
"I am in favor of stem cell research. I am not in favor of creating new human embryos through cloning."
May 1, 2005, National Review Online,
“Stem cell research does not require the cloning of human embryos. Some stem cells today are obtained from surplus embryos from in-vitro fertilization. I support that research, provided that those embryos are obtained after a rigorous parental consent process that includes adoption as an alternative. Further, the greatest successes in stem cell research to date have come from the use of adult and umbilical cord stem cells. Stanford professor William Hurlbut, a physician and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, has proposed a promising approach. Known as altered nuclear transfer, this method could allow researchers to obtain embryonic stem cells without the moral shortcut of cloning and destroying a human embryo.”
March 6, 2005, The Boston Globe The problem with the stem cell bill
“I believe stem cell research is important to our state, for our nation, and I also believe there should be ethical lines drawn on the appropriate type of research. Stem cell research is important, and I’ll support it, and I’m gonna continue to encourage ethical lines to people be drawn in a way that respects human life…”
March 8, 2005, Tempe, Arizona
“Altered nuclear transfer creates embryo like cells that can be used for stem cell research. In my view that’s the most promising source. I have a deep concern about curing disease. I have a wife that has a serious disease that could be affected by stem cell research, but I will not, I will not create new embryos through cloning or through embryo farming because that would be creating life for the purpose of destroying it."
Chris Matthews: And you won’t take any from these fertility clinics to use either?
I’m happy to allow that, I shouldn’t say happy, it’s fine for that to be allowed, to be legal. I won’t use our government funds for that. Instead I want our government funds to be used on Doctor Hurlbut’s method which is altered nuclear transfer.”
May 3, 2007; MSNBC/Politico Republican Presidential Debate, Ronald Regan Presidential Library, Simi Valley
“I am glad that you raised that. The United States House of Representatives voted for a bill that was identical to what I proposed. What they voted for is what I proposed. Alright? They voted to provide for surplus embryos from invetro fertilization processes to be used for research and experimentation. That’s what I have said I support. That’s what they have just supported. What I said we should not do is to get into embryo farming, cloning for experimentation and a redefinition of when life begins. That’s what our legislature is doing. What our legislature has done goes well beyond what is done in Washington. What is done in Washington is consistent with what I have said I support which is using surplus embryos from fertilization processes. So it would be helpful if people pointed out that in fact what the US House of Representatives is doing is exactly what Governor Romney proposed. And what our legislature is doing is going in an entirely new direction that goes well beyond the boundary of ethics that has already been established.”
May 27, 2005; Romney explaining his veto for a contraception bill
Larry King: Your wife has multiple sclerosis, a disease some scientists think will be cured through stem cell research. How is she doing?
Mitt Romney: She's doing terrifically well. She's riding horses on a regular basis. She thinks that keeps her healthy and strong. And she's one of the few that has had very little progression from the disease. So I'm pleased and hopeful.
LR: Do you support the stem cell thing?
Romney: I support stem cell research. I do not support creating new embryos for the purpose of taking away the life of that embryo, and taking stem cells from those embryos. There are a lot of better ways than getting stem cells from --
LR: Even though they're probably never going to be lives?
Romney: If you create them in the laboratory, you're creating new life. And I wouldn't do that for the purpose of research, but there are fortunately much better ways of doing it, which has now been proven by scientists across the country.
LR: Do you think we're going to cure MS?
Romney: I sure hope so. I think eventually we'll be curing most of the major diseases we know during our lifetimes. But when these things get cured, that's going to be a long time down the road.
Paul supports stem cell research, but he opposes the involvement of the federal government in the matter and wants it to be left to the states and private enterprises.
“Medical and scientific ethics issues are in the news again, as Congress narrowly passed a bill last week that funds controversial embryonic stem cell research. While I certainly sympathize with those who understandably hope such research will lead to cures for terrible diseases, I object to forcing taxpayers who believe harvesting embryos is immoral to pay for it.
Congressional Republicans, eager to appease pro-life voters while still appearing suitably compassionate, supported a second bill that provides nearly $80 million for umbilical cord stem cell research. But it's never compassionate to spend other people's money for political benefit.
The issue is not whether the federal government should fund one type of stem cell research or another. The issue is whether the federal government should fund stem cell research at all… The debate over stem cell research involves profound moral, religious, and ethical question - questions Congress is particularly ill equipped to resolve. The injustice of forcing taxpayers to fund research some find ethically abhorrent is patently obvious… Decentralized decisions and privatized funding would eliminate much of the ill will between supporters and opponents of stem cell research.”
May 31, 2005; Missing the Point: Federal Funding of Stem Cell Research, Texas Talk
“In Washington you only have two choices. You either have the opportunity to ban it, or subsidize it. Well why not look to the Constitution and the freedom? Just legalize these ideas and allow people to do it and do research. That’s a difficult, sometimes it becomes more difficult, exactly when and where. But under the Constitution the states could actually fund it and they could prevent it. And I have a personal belief from my medical background that stem cell research is very, very important.”
November 7, 2007; Interview with the editorial board of the NashuaTelegraph (7 minutes into the video below)
There have been great discoveries and advancements due to research of adult stem cells. Snyder understands that stem cell research is a justifiable science, but believes embryonic stem cell research is a means to justify abortion. The federal government should not play a part in a science with such morbid origins.