August 18, 2004.
By GINA BURDGE,
The scientific community is excited about the possible medical breakthroughs that stem cell research could provide for such diseases as Parkinson's, spinal cord injury, heart muscle failure, retinal degeneration and diabetes.
The research has just begun and to ban it or strictly limit it will significantly leave our country behind. This is a complicated issue. Fear and personal beliefs are setting policy and I don't believe that's best for our citizens.
In February 2003, the Human Cloning Prohibition Act passed which makes it a crime for anyone, public or private to conduct Somatic Cell Nuclear Transplantation on a fertilized or unfertilized human egg cell for reproductive or therapeutic purposes. That's a mouthful, but what does that mean?
SCNT involves taking a human egg, removing the nucleus, taking a body ---- or somatic ---- cell from a patient, removing its nucleus and transferring it into the egg cell. The cell quickly goes through several divisions and reaches a state called blastocyst.
At this point for therapeutic purposes, the inner cells can be removed and cultured in a petri dish for stem cells. These stem cells can be grown into kidney, pancreatic, heart, nerve tissues, etc. The core of this whole debate is whether one considers the cells in this petri dish a human life or not. Of course, they are alive. They came from living cells. But is every cell in your body a human life?
If the cells are not removed from the blastocyst, it theoretically could be implanted into a uterus and grown to full term. That is reproductive cloning, not stem cell research. Once the cells are removed from the blastocyst, they can only become stem cells; they no longer hold the potential to become a complete human being.
There was an amendment to the cloning act that would have allowed SCNT for therapeutic purposes but not reproductive. It was not supported. Britain passed legislation to allow SCNT for therapeutic purposes last week.
With embryonic stem cells, an egg that was fertilized in vitro ---- in a test tube ---- divides to the blastocyst stage; the inner cells are removed and used in much the same way as described above. Again the debate; is an egg fertilized by a sperm a human being? If the frozen fertilized eggs are going to be destroyed because the mother is not going to use them, why not donate them to save another's life instead?
As you can see, understanding terminology is very important in this debate.
If we lift the ban on federal funding of new embryonic stem cell lines, but maintain the ban on SCNT, then a major advance in this technology will not be allowed to be developed. Nuclear transfer in embryonic and somatic cells allows all the cells and tissue types to carry the nuclear genome of the patient. This means since you make the stem cells using a nucleus from your own cells your body won't reject them.
Otherwise, adult and embryonic stem cell recipients would need antirejection drugs for the remainder of their life, just as current organ transplant recipients do. I'm sure this would make pharmaceutical companies very happy, though.
Federally funded research on all stem cell sources, with limited restrictions in our country, may allow cures for diseases in our lifetime.
I find it ironic our society will drop bombs on human beings to destroy them, but propose sending a person to jail for destroying unfertilized egg cells that could save lives. Talk about time for a change.
Gina Burdge lives in Temecula, California.
© 1997-2004 North County Times.
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