Stem-Cell Research and Roller Skates

According to a July 4 CNN News report, President Bush is "struggling" with whether or not to allow federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells. This isn't surprising news, considering Pre

Jul 12, 2001 at 2:06 pm

According to a July 4 CNN News report, President Bush is "struggling" with whether or not to allow federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells. This isn't surprising news, considering President Bush struggles to tie his shoelaces every morning.

Meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer assures everyone that between his catnaps, his 15-minute meetings and his afternoon workouts, Bush is giving the issue his careful consideration. He will soon make a ruling that will affect millions suffering from Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other illnesses, either allowing federal funding of stem-cell research or extending the ban.

As yet, no one knows which way he'll go — least of all, Bush himself, for whom even the birds and bees remain a mystery.

Federal law bans the use of tax dollars on any research that results in the destruction of embryos. The Clinton Administration managed to sidestep opposition by allowing federally funded stem-cell research provided private dollars are used to extract the cells that are studied. Bill Clinton then further distracted opponents by sleeping with lots of women.

Crafty. No problems with the birds and bees there, that's for sure.

But public pressure is mounting for research using embryonic stem cells that could prove vital to curing everything from neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's to diabetes and heart disease. Bush is expected to announce next week whether federal funding will be permitted for research.

But how important is embryonic stem-cell research? What effects will Dubya's decision have? And what the hell is an embryonic stem cell, anyway?

Well, first things first. Embryonic stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can potentially be triggered into developing into any cell in the body. A human egg is fertilized when sperm and egg meet, bringing together genetic material from the mother and the father. The result is a cell that quickly begins to divide and differentiate and develop into a fetus. From there, you hopefully get 10 fingers and 10 toes, a normal human being in every sense.

But before differentiation takes place, the cells are basic and unspecialized; later they can become any cell in the body. They can become anything from bone cells to big toe cells, or kidney, eye, heart or liver cells. You name it. In response to a trigger that scientists don't yet understand, stem cells are able to differentiate, become specialized and take on the characteristics of any cell in the body.

The down side? You have to obtain the cells from a human embryo.

One of the reasons scientists don't really understand the triggers involved or the mechanisms that control differentiation is that so far their research has been limited by so many governmental barriers. Even so, scientists believe stem cells could be used to replace degenerative cells that cause the symptoms in Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. Researchers also believe stem cells could be introduced into the pancreas of diabetic patients and programmed to differentiate into the insulin-producing cells they lack.

Potentially, stem cells could be made to develop into various types of cells the body needs. For instance, neural cells could allow spinal-cord injury patients to walk again, diabetics could begin to produce the insulin they lack and David Crosby could grow a new liver right there on site, next to the old one.

Well, once again, the religious right is standing in the way. To them, embryonic stem-cell research is tantamount to abortion. The issue, though, is a little stickier ethically than abortion, and it's caused some high-profile politicians to break rank in surprising directions.

Most notably, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, wrote a letter to Bush last month in support of federally funding stem-cell research.

"Proceeding with this research ... is consistent with our shared pro-life, pro-family values," Hatch wrote.

To complicate the issue, an inexhaustible supply of embryos exists, stored in liquid nitrogen tanks in fertility clinics across the United States. Some will remain there until they're no longer viable, while others are literally thrown in the trash. Isn't that even worse than not using them at all?

Meanwhile, anti-abortion groups oppose the research, because it requires the death of a human embryo. But they die anyway.

A recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that, of more than 400 couples participating in an in vitro fertilization program, 26 per cent still had embryos stored in the freezer after the three-year recommended storage deadline. Investigators tried to locate the 91 of these couples who were no longer in the program and were able to find only 52 of them. Of these, 17 decided to dispose of the embryos, 15 continued storage, seven donated embryos to infertile couples, six tried to have another baby, five donated embryos to research and two couldn't decide.

Remember, though, 39 couples couldn't even be found. And each couple probably had several embryos stored, maybe even as many as 10 or 15. Doesn't anyone find anything wrong with human embryos going stale in liquid nitrogen?

Is embryonic stem-cell research really the same as abortion? The stock answer is that research involving embryonic stem cells uses cells that could potentially be implanted and result in a human life. To use them solely for research is unnatural! It's like playing God!

Yeah, right. Ever since we climbed down from the trees we've been doing things that were unnatural. Antibiotics aren't natural. Neither is cataract surgery. Neither are roller-skates.

Meanwhile, all over the United States, the potential therapy for dozens of illnesses sits in freezers or is thrown onto landfill sites in bags marked 'Biohazard' or thrown into incinerators and destroyed. In a week or two, we'll find out whether President Bush wants to put them to use.