Last Wednesday was apparently Stem Cell Awareness Day, as proclaimed by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. I don’t know how I missed it, but guess I will be running out to the Hallmark store this afternoon to get some belated stem cell awareness cards for my family.
All joking aside, stem cells have been in the news frequently of late. Texas Governor Rick Perry, for example, reportedly received an experimental stem cell treatment this past summer in order to fix his bad back. He, like the other Republican Presidential candidates, is quick to decry embryonic stem cell research but is an ardent supporter of research using other types of stem cell lines.
In a more recent news item, coincidentally released on Stem Cell Awareness Day, a team of researchers from the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory reported the creation of two new embryonic stem cell lines. I imagine that Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann and the other Republican candidates did not approve. Not only did this research involve the use of human embryos, but these embryos were created through the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer, a scientific process commonly described in the media as “cloning”.
Cloning is a rather politically and emotionally charged word. Just a day after the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory announcement, dozens of blogs were already fretting that Xerox copies of notable figures like Michael Jordan or Barack Obama will soon be mass produced.
While I wouldn’t mind seeing a clone of the late Steve Jobs back at the helm of Apple, such fears are misplaced. More importantly, the articles and blogs I found highlight the common misconceptions about cloning that currently pervade American discourse about stem cell research.
Stem cells are the “master” cells found in all multicellular organisms, including humans. They are like raw clay. They can be shaped or molded to give rise to any type of cell found within the body, and play an important role in healing and wound repair. The regenerative properties of stem cells, researchers hope, can be harnessed to develop cures for serious illnesses like diabetes or severe traumas like spinal cord injuries.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from fertilized human eggs, usually through a process that destroys the embryo. For many, this raises serious moral concerns. Adult stem cells, by contrast, can be derived from bone marrow or other donated tissues. They thus can be obtained without destroying a human embryo. However, many researchers believe that they are not as plastic as embryonic stem cells.
Embryonic stem cell lines can usually give rise to all of the different types of cells found in the human body, whereas adult stem cell lines can usually only give rise to a few. This potentially limits the usefulness of adult stem cell lines in treating degenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Treatments derived from embryonic stem cell lines, and many adult stem cell lines, also have the problem of immune rejection. The human immune system works by identifying and killing foreign objects. This helps the body repel disease-causing bacteria and viruses, but also causes the body to reject transplanted tissues and organs. This is why most kidney transplant recipients must take powerful immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives, or why most patients in need of bone marrow must hope against all odds that a suitable donor can be found.
Cloning allows doctors to create stem cell lines that are an exact match to the cells in your body. These cells could then be used to treat a variety of illnesses or injuries without fear of rejection or the use of dangerous immunosuppressive drugs. In many ways, developing a successful human cloning technique is the Holy Grail of regenerative medicine research.
Scientists have been trying to clone human cells for years but with little success. Their efforts are not intended to create a race of disposal soldiers like the Imperial Stormtroopers of Star Wars fame or to enable egomaniacal billionaires to clone themselves. No sane researcher wants that, and reproductive cloning is in violation of all national and international guidelines regulating research like this. Furthermore, the technique developed at the New York Stem Cell Foundation Laboratory cannot be used to create viable human embryos.
Rather, as University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan so aptly put it, research like this will help doctors to create a “fix-it kit for each of us from the DNA of our own cells.” This is why research on cloning needs to be funded and supported, even by those who oppose embryonic stem cell research like Rick Perry. At best, the cynical policymakers and pundits who continue to rail against funding research on cloning are misinformed. At worst, they are political opportunists who are impeding our best efforts to develop new treatments for otherwise incurable diseases and injuries that plague millions.
[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on October 13, 2011. It is also available on the WAMC website .]