Stem cells can be found in almost every multicellular living organism on the planet.
It plays a crucial and irreplaceable part in our growth from embryonic development to adulthood.
Stem cells are classified as undifferentiated cells, one that has yet to evolve or be assigned to a specific function by the host body.
A stem cell would continue to divide, through the process of mitosis, until it eventually matures into a differentiated cell, which would either be committed as a building block for the hosts, or used in a regenerative function.
There are various terms are used to classify different types of human stem cells. However, the three most common ones are:
(i) Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells are ordinarily obtained from tissues harvested from the epithelial layer (blastoderm) and fluid-filled cavity (blastocoel) of the blastula during the blastocyst stage of a fetal development period, usually four to six days after fertilization. Primarily sourced from in vitro fertilized embryos.
(ii) Somatic Stem Cells
Somatic cells are harvested from adult human tissues with active regenerative cycles, such as skin, lining of the small intestine, blood vessels, liver, brain and bone marrow.
(iii) Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS cells)
iPS cells are created by reprogramming ordinary cells using RNA virus. These cells undergo gradual changes that strip them of their original cellular memories and eventually mimic the malleable characteristics of embryonic stem cells. iPS production remains an unstable process and regularly produces unforeseen attributes.
All three sources of stem cells offer differing growth and maturity characteristics, which influence their potential usage. However, embryonic stem cells are regarded as the superior of the three.
Scientists have been aware of stem cells and the potential it offers for almost four decades, but the first real breakthrough only came in 1998, when a team lead by Dr. James Thompson from the University of Wisconsin discovered a method to isolate and propagate the cells from human embryos. Despite the huge potential behind stem cell technology, Dr. Thompson’s breakthrough raises serious moral questions over the use of human embryos to harvest stem cells.
Difficult questions, such as the right of the embryo or of its legal status as a person - ordinarily heard in any debate involving the issue of abortion – became a hot topic of discussion. Does the potential benefit of this technology to humanity justifies the ‘farming’ and post-harvesting destruction of these embryos? The discovery of undifferentiated somatic stem cells, and more recently, iPS cells, have lessened the demand for embryonic stem cells, but it still remains the most sought after for its simpler properties and more expansive development potential.
But why is there such excitement over the stem cell technology?
The science of stem cell technology offers the opportunity to understand the biological and chemical mechanics of human development, which in turn will offer an understanding of how diseases develop and of the methods required to suppress them. It also presents an opportunity for the advancement of the still new field of regenerative medicine - for cell, tissues, limbs and organs.
Mastery of these stem cell technologies will revolutionize modern medicine. Diseases (such as cancer, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis), limbic defects (birth or accident) and damaged organs would all be curable. We can grow what is needed, and prevent what isn’t. Even Oscar Goldman's famous line, "We can rebuild him...we have the technology,"no longer seem as far-fetched.
Nevertheless, full mastery of stem cell technology remains decades away. Hurdles are aplenty, and there are huge gaps in our knowledge. But there have been some practical, life-saving even, application of stem cell technology. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, hematopoietic stem cells (blood forming cells) from the bone marrow and umbilical cord blood are used in an estimated 50,000 hematopoietic cell transplants annually worldwide to treat patients with life-threatening malignant and non-malignant diseases such as,
• Leukemias and lymphomas
• Severe aplastic anemia and other marrow failure states
• SCID and other inherited immune system disorders
• Hurler's syndrome and other inherited metabolic disorders
• Familial erythrophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis and other histiocytic disorders
Stem cell research has seen its potential for progress being curtailed drastically by a myriad of political, religious and ethical issues - and there is even opposition from within the medical community itself. In 2001, former President Bush limited federal funding of stem cell research to 21 non-embryonic stem cell lines - a limitation which was revoked by President Obama in 2009, expanding the cell lines for federally funded research. The debate does not appear to be reaching a conclusion anytime soon, and serves as yet another divisive political tool.
2012 Republican Presidential Nominee
Former Governor of Massachusetts
Romney is a strong supporter of stem cell research, but he is against the practice of cloning or embryo farming as a source for cells. He is also against federal funds being used for embryonic stem cell research.
"I am in favor of stem cell research. I am not in favor of creating new human embryos through cloning."
May 1, 2005, National Review Online,
“Stem cell research does not require the cloning of human embryos. Some stem cells today are obtained from surplus embryos from in-vitro fertilization. I support that research, provided that those embryos are obtained after a rigorous parental consent process that includes adoption as an alternative. Further, the greatest successes in stem cell research to date have come from the use of adult and umbilical cord stem cells. Stanford professor William Hurlbut, a physician and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, has proposed a promising approach. Known as altered nuclear transfer, this method could allow researchers to obtain embryonic stem cells without the moral shortcut of cloning and destroying a human embryo.”
March 6, 2005, The Boston Globe The problem with the stem cell bill
“I believe stem cell research is important to our state, for our nation, and I also believe there should be ethical lines drawn on the appropriate type of research. Stem cell research is important, and I’ll support it, and I’m gonna continue to encourage ethical lines to people be drawn in a way that respects human life…”
March 8, 2005, Tempe, Arizona
“Altered nuclear transfer creates embryo like cells that can be used for stem cell research. In my view that’s the most promising source. I have a deep concern about curing disease. I have a wife that has a serious disease that could be affected by stem cell research, but I will not, I will not create new embryos through cloning or through embryo farming because that would be creating life for the purpose of destroying it."
Chris Matthews: And you won’t take any from these fertility clinics to use either?
I’m happy to allow that, I shouldn’t say happy, it’s fine for that to be allowed, to be legal. I won’t use our government funds for that. Instead I want our government funds to be used on Doctor Hurlbut’s method which is altered nuclear transfer.”
May 3, 2007; MSNBC/Politico Republican Presidential Debate, Ronald Regan Presidential Library, Simi Valley
“I am glad that you raised that. The United States House of Representatives voted for a bill that was identical to what I proposed. What they voted for is what I proposed. Alright? They voted to provide for surplus embryos from invetro fertilization processes to be used for research and experimentation. That’s what I have said I support. That’s what they have just supported. What I said we should not do is to get into embryo farming, cloning for experimentation and a redefinition of when life begins. That’s what our legislature is doing. What our legislature has done goes well beyond what is done in Washington. What is done in Washington is consistent with what I have said I support which is using surplus embryos from fertilization processes. So it would be helpful if people pointed out that in fact what the US House of Representatives is doing is exactly what Governor Romney proposed. And what our legislature is doing is going in an entirely new direction that goes well beyond the boundary of ethics that has already been established.”
May 27, 2005; Romney explaining his veto for a contraception bill
Larry King: Your wife has multiple sclerosis, a disease some scientists think will be cured through stem cell research. How is she doing?
Mitt Romney: She's doing terrifically well. She's riding horses on a regular basis. She thinks that keeps her healthy and strong. And she's one of the few that has had very little progression from the disease. So I'm pleased and hopeful.
LR: Do you support the stem cell thing?
Romney: I support stem cell research. I do not support creating new embryos for the purpose of taking away the life of that embryo, and taking stem cells from those embryos. There are a lot of better ways than getting stem cells from --
LR: Even though they're probably never going to be lives?
Romney: If you create them in the laboratory, you're creating new life. And I wouldn't do that for the purpose of research, but there are fortunately much better ways of doing it, which has now been proven by scientists across the country.
LR: Do you think we're going to cure MS?
Romney: I sure hope so. I think eventually we'll be curing most of the major diseases we know during our lifetimes. But when these things get cured, that's going to be a long time down the road.
Paul supports stem cell research, but he opposes the involvement of the federal government in the matter and wants it to be left to the states and private enterprises.
“Medical and scientific ethics issues are in the news again, as Congress narrowly passed a bill last week that funds controversial embryonic stem cell research. While I certainly sympathize with those who understandably hope such research will lead to cures for terrible diseases, I object to forcing taxpayers who believe harvesting embryos is immoral to pay for it.
Congressional Republicans, eager to appease pro-life voters while still appearing suitably compassionate, supported a second bill that provides nearly $80 million for umbilical cord stem cell research. But it's never compassionate to spend other people's money for political benefit.
The issue is not whether the federal government should fund one type of stem cell research or another. The issue is whether the federal government should fund stem cell research at all… The debate over stem cell research involves profound moral, religious, and ethical question - questions Congress is particularly ill equipped to resolve. The injustice of forcing taxpayers to fund research some find ethically abhorrent is patently obvious… Decentralized decisions and privatized funding would eliminate much of the ill will between supporters and opponents of stem cell research.”
May 31, 2005; Missing the Point: Federal Funding of Stem Cell Research, Texas Talk
“In Washington you only have two choices. You either have the opportunity to ban it, or subsidize it. Well why not look to the Constitution and the freedom? Just legalize these ideas and allow people to do it and do research. That’s a difficult, sometimes it becomes more difficult, exactly when and where. But under the Constitution the states could actually fund it and they could prevent it. And I have a personal belief from my medical background that stem cell research is very, very important.”
November 7, 2007; Interview with the editorial board of the NashuaTelegraph (7 minutes into the video below)
There have been great discoveries and advancements due to research of adult stem cells. Snyder understands that stem cell research is a justifiable science, but believes embryonic stem cell research is a means to justify abortion. The federal government should not play a part in a science with such morbid origins.