15 December 2014
The Stem Cell Divide
TJ Atchison’s living nightmare began late at night on a chilly September evening of 2010 in Chatom, Alabama when the twenty-one year old was driving home from a football game and he stopped at a friend’s house. Unfortunately, he accidentally stayed until three in the morning and his stepfather called him to ask when he would be home. He then realized how late it had gotten and hurried to get to his car in order to avoid getting into even more trouble. Not far from his friend’s house, TJ approached a sharp curve where he made an effort to slow down so that he would not wreck the car. However, as he made the turn, he realized by the jerk of his rear tires that something was terribly wrong. The car lost traction and began to spin and slide out of control while humming dangerously. Even when he pushed the brakes, there was no response. The car continued to spin and roar until he plummeted into a forest and blacked out.
When he awoke, completely unaware of how much time had passed, he inspected the damage of the car: steering wheel ripped from the dashboard, car keys nowhere to be seen, every window shattered, the dashboard completely crushed, and the engine humming like it was about to explode. TJ attempted to search for his phone so that he could call for help; however, as he felt around in his pockets, he noticed that he could not feel anything below his waist. After three hours of pain and yelling for help, TJ was finally found by a family that lived nearby and they
called the authorities. Once help arrived, TJ was removed from the demolished vehicle and taken away by helicopter. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with preliminary paralysis due to a T5 fracture – with little to no chance of ever walking again. Unbeknownst to this vibrant young man from the conservative South, he was about to become the first human candidate to test the safety of the stem cells designed to regenerate damaged spinal cord tissue (Minus).
This incredible scientific opportunity could help pave the road for the use of stem cells to treat, and possibly cure, multiple diseases. Stem cells are cells “…that upon division replaces its own numbers and also gives rise to cells that differentiate further into one or more specialized types…” (dictionary.reference.com). There are many benefits and potential cures that come from research using stem cells for medical conditions such as paralysis, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, burns, cardiovascular diseases, type 1 diabetes, etc. Even if these health problems are never completely cured, they might not be as severe with the aid of stem cells (Benefits of Stem Cells). For example, people with type 1 diabetes might still need to get a shot of stem cells every few months but that is nothing compared to multiple shots every day.
Already, stem cells are used to treat leukemia, lymphoma and several inherited blood disorders; but most of these treatments are possible because of embryonic stem cells. There are two main types of stem cells that scientists use for research – embryonic and adult (non- embryonic) stem cells. Scientific writer Ian Murnaghan writes that that the main difference between adult and embryonic stem cells is that adult stem cells are less flexible and versatile; therefore, adult stem cells are limited in how they can develop (Adult vs. Embryonic). Since there is more potential in what embryonic stem cells have to offer, the main focus on stem cell research should be on embryonic cells. However, human embryonic stem cell research, which has the potential to save lives worldwide, does not come without controversy.
The disagreement has many social, legal, political, and ethical issues adjoining human embryonic stem cell technology. Scientists know that human embryonic stem cells have the ability to redevelop infinite replicas of themselves. However, bioethics, which is the moral principle of medical and biological research, produces multiple questions: “Does life begin at fertilization, in the womb, or at birth? Is a human embryo equivalent to a human child? Does a human embryo have any rights?” (The Stem Cell Debate). It was these questions that TJ had to personally face in order to decide whether or not to participate in a stem cell experiment. Similar questions are highly debated in America because this is a country with freedom of religion and many religions have different standards on when life begins and what classifies as a human child. For example, Jewish and Islamic religions distinguish that an evolving fetus should be treated with respect as a being, but does not earn personhood until much later in the pregnancy. In Islam, they do not count a blastocyst (developing cells) as a person until four months into the pregnancy and it takes forty days in Jewish theology. However, Catholic beliefs can make the progress for human embryonic stem cell research difficult because they believe that life starts at the exact moment of conception (Park).
It is this collection of multiple religions and diverse cultural beliefs that creates a challenge for the United States in regard to embryonic stem cells. Other countries have citizens with similar beliefs that do not have as much conflict in creating regulations for the use of stem cells. It can also be said that other countries, like the United Kingdom, have viewed stem cell research more from a scientific perceptive. Many countries allow their stem cell regulations to be created by doctors, lawyers, and scientists rather than ethicists, theologians, and public opinion. In the United States, the moral issues trumped the biology and allowed politicians to
connect stem cell research to the abortion debate thus delaying and even halting the progress of this invaluable but controversial (at least in America) medical research (Park).
Since the abortion debate has divided this country along party lines, the divide on stem cell research tends to also be supported by liberals and opposed by conservatives. This was most evident when republican President George W. Bush restricted federal funding to a study of approximately seventy human embryonic stem cell lines in 2001 (learn.genetics.utah.edu). However, very few of these stem cells were actually sustainable since many of them were contaminated with mouse tissue. Bush’s decision was a statement in support of what he called “compassionate conservatism,” which is reflected in Alice Park’s The Stem Cell Hope, as she writes:
On the one hand, [Bush’s] firm conviction that life begins at conception, and that no life should be destroyed to serve another, made the field, however promising, ethically troublesome… On the other hand, millions of Americans, to whom he was also accountable, suffered daily from untreatable diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and spinal cord injury – all conditions that could someday be cured with stem cell therapies. Was it ethical to deny these citizens a chance for a cure? (Park).
One might think that Bush’s actions would have brought stem cell research to a screeching halt in the U.S, which was the hope of most conservatives. They applauded his decision since they believed that life began at conception and that the destruction of any embryos was morally wrong. Conservatives did not want their taxpayer dollars to support research that they thought was unethical. However, it should be noted that taxpayer dollars are constantly
used to fund other programs, like wars and birth control, that many Americans believe to be immoral. Another problem with the extremist view is that our government was designed to separate church and state in order to support all U.S. citizens regardless of their belief system. Wouldn’t supporting one religious viewpoint violate this doctrine while cheating those with different perspectives from the benefits that stem cells have to offer?
It should be noted that the Bush regulations only meant that the federal government would not fund stem cell research – not that it could not take place in the U.S. However, due to the new strict regulations, important researchers chose to relocate to other countries where they could continue their research without controversy. Although this temporarily slowed down the process, the private sector quickly recognized the opportunity and potential to make money by discovering cures for common diseases, like type 1 diabetes and cancer, in which private donors funded these companies instead of the federal government. The downfall to this new reality was that the government could no longer regulate what was going on in the labs. The fight for cures had become a money-making race between private companies rather than a moral desire to help those who suffer from debilitating or life-threatening diseases.
This opportunity to cure debilitating diseases was also embraced by several state governments that also saw the potential in financially supporting stem cell research since it would attract researchers in the field, increase employment, and possibly have their state leading the field in the future of medical research. The first state to take advantage of the loss of federal funding was the state of California, which introduced Proposition 71 which would distribute 3 billion dollars of state funds for stem cell research (therapeutic cloning only) over a 10 year period. The organizers for Prop.71 had no problem finding famous supporters to champion their cause including Nancy Reagan, Michael J. Fox, Brad Pitt, Bill Gates, and even Christopher
Reeve in a posthumous television spot. It has been noted that “Reeve, who had passed away just a month before the election, had been a supporter of Prop. 71 and his appeal was preceded by a message from his family noting that the statement was his last recorded message. ‘Please support Prop. 71,’ Reeve urged in the spot, between breaths on the ventilator that kept him alive, ‘and stand up for those who can’t’” (Park). The tide was beginning to turn with public opinion (at least in California) and Prop. 71 won by a margin of 19%, while becoming the first state- funded investment in a scientific field. At least eleven other states followed suit and several others have propositions in the works (Johnson).
It was because of the Proposition 71 initiative and efforts of scientists from private companies that TJ Atchison was able to be a human candidate for the first stem cell study involving spinal cord injuries. This first human trial sponsored by the private company, Geron, was designed only to determine the safety of administering stem cells to damaged spinal tissue with the hope that human trials would eventually occur for the purpose of actually curing paralysis. For TJ, he is able to walk with assistance while wearing an Eksoskelton bionic suit but is still mostly confined to a wheelchair. He will be followed for a total of fifteen years after his treatment in order to observe if he develops any complications that may be related to the stem cells (Minus). These types of trials are reminders that the federal government and public opinion could not stop stem cell research and that it is now a source of hope for the future thanks to the private corporations and state governments that chose to take the financial risks. To reduce the controversy, all stem cells used in research are only obtained from fertility clinics that would have otherwise discarded them. The “parents” of the embryos have a choice to either pay to keep them frozen, have them discarded, donate them to science, or donate them to another couple. However, it should be noted that there are not enough couples for all of the embryos.
Eventually, the expectation is that scientists will be able to take stem cells from individuals to create their own personalized treatment cells for some of the most common illnesses that currently deplete our government’s funds and destroy lives in the process. In the meantime, the scientific research of stem cells offers hope for the people suffering from debilitating illnesses/injuries and is a reminder that this medical breakthrough is all about supporting life.
Works cited: Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.
“Frequently Asked Questions.” Stem Cell Basics. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
Johnson, Judith A., and Erin D. Minus. “Stem Cell Research: State Initiatives.” (n.d.): n. pag.
19 May 2006. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Murnaghan, Ian. “Adult vs. Embryonic Stem Cells.” Adult vs. Embryonic Stem Cells. N.p., 28 Sept. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
Murnaghan, Ian. “Benefits of Stem Cells.” Benefits of Stem Cells. N.p., 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
Park, Alice. The Stem Cell Hope: How Stem Cell Medicine Can Change Our Lives. New York: Hudson Street, 2011. Print.
“The Stem Cell Debate: Is It Over?” The Stem Cell Debate: Is It Over? N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.
Minus, Tory. Inevitable Collision. NY: Mary Ann Liebert, 2014. Print.