Stem cell research
What are human embryonic stem cells and how are they obtained?
Human embryonic stem cells are the cells from which all 200+ kinds of tissue in the human body originate. Typically, they are derived from human embryos—often those from fertility clinics who are left over from assisted reproduction attempts (e.g., in vitro fertilization). When stem cells are obtained from living human embryos, the harvesting of such cells necessitates destruction of the embryos.
Have scientists been successful in using embryonic stem cells to treat disease?
Though embryonic stem cells have been purported as holding great medical promise, reports of actual clinical success have been few. Instead, scientists conducting research on embryonic stem cells have encountered significant obstacles—including tumor formation, unstable gene expression, and an inability to stimulate the cells to form the desired type of tissue. It may indeed be telling that some biotechnology companies have chosen not to invest financially in embryonic stem cell research and some scientists have elected to focus their research exclusively on non-embryonic stem cell research.
Is it ethical to obtain stem cells from human fetuses and umbilical cords?
Fetal stem cell research may ethically resemble either adult or embryonic stem cell research and must be evaluated accordingly. If fetal stem cells are obtained from miscarried or stillborn fetuses, or if it is possible to remove them from fetuses still alive in the womb without harming the fetuses, then no harm is done to the donor and such fetal stem cell research is ethical. However, if the abortion of fetuses is the means by which fetal stem cells are obtained, then an unethical means (the killing of human beings) is involved. Since umbilical cords are detached from infants at birth, umbilical cord blood is an ethical source of stem cells.
How are adult stem cells different from embryonic stem cells?
Adult stem cells (also referred to as “non-embryonic” stem cells) are present in adults, children, infants, placentas, umbilical cords, and cadavers. Obtaining stem cells from these sources does not result in certain harm to a human being.
Have scientists been successful in using non-embryonic stem cells to treat disease?
Yes. In contrast to research on embryonic stem cells, non-embryonic stem cell research has already resulted in numerous instances of actual clinical benefit to patients. For example, patients suffering from a whole host of afflictions—including (but not limited to) Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, stroke, anemia, cancer, immunodeficiency, corneal damage, blood and liver diseases, heart attack, and diabetes—have experienced improved function following administration of therapies derived from adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells. The long-held belief that non-embryonic stem cells are less able to differentiate into multiple cell types or be sustained in the laboratory over an extended period of time—rendering them less medically-promising than embryonic stem cells—has been repeatedly challenged by experimental results that have suggested otherwise. (For updates on experimental results, access www.stemcellresearch.org.)