Stem cell debate arises in wake of large grant

Social issues carried lesser importance in the recent midterm elections due to high unemployment rates and a poor economy. However, last week, the second federally approved study of human embryonic stem cells brought the much-debated topic back for discussion.

Advanced Cell Technology, a biotechnology company in California, will use the human embryonic stem cell research approval to examine Stargardt disease — a rare condition that causes vision loss in adolescents. According to ACT’s website, the research will begin in early 2011.

Although the disease only affects about 30,000 individuals in the U.S. and Europe, the ACT website said officials hope to expand research and treatment to the more common eye disorder, macular degeneration.

To conduct the study, 12 patients in multiple clinical sites around the country will be injected with healthy scavenger cells created from human embryonic stem cells. Only one eye will be treated due to research safety precautions.

Safety precautions regarding this type of research is a main reason why there is so much opposition to human embryonic stem cell research. For many, the idea of destroying a human embryo is ethically unacceptable.

Regardless of opposition or support, however, some might not fully understand the purpose of this research.

Allison Abbott, an assistant professor of biological sciences, said the greatest advantage is that embryonic cells can divide, and thus become any cell in the body.

“They’re valuable scientifically because as they become differentiated they can become whatever is needed within the body for treatment,” Abbott said.

Abbott also said embryonic cells are easily isolated, but not “clean-cut ethically,” and run other health-related risks such as formation of a teratoma tumor. If an embryonic cell does not become part of an organ, it ends up in free space and divides further. This would increase the possibility of a cancerous cell and tumor, she said.

In contrast, adult cells have no research limitation, but are difficult to locate, she said.

According to the National Institutes of Health website, adult stem cells are often rare in mature tissues. This is due to the cells having more genetic abnormalities that occurred throughout aging and exposure to harmful agents over one’s lifetime.

The debate between which type of research is more effective will likely continue for many years to come, but some advocates for adult stem cell research feel society does not realize the accomplishments it has already made.

Gene Tarne, communications director for “Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics,” said support for adult cells is usually not recognized due to the media that focuses on embryonic cells.

Tarne said more than 1,000 clinical trials using adult stem cells have taken place and research shows 73 diseases and conditions that can be treated with their use.

“To date, there are only two clinical trials using human embryonic stem cells, and they are ongoing,” she said. “The trial using them to treat spinal cord injury includes only one patient … this weight of evidence argues that it is adult stem cells that are doing the most right now to help patients.”

Kelly Slain, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, said she thinks stem cell research is important regardless of whether it uses embryonic or adult cells.

“Stem cell research may hold the key to many new medical cures and will be able to enlighten doctors on new concepts in medicine,” Slain said.