President George Bush announced that he would allow limited federal funding for embryonic stem cell research on 60 existing stem cell lines. Though controversial, it is a decision that offers promise for new treatments, and hope to those who suffer from many debilitating medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The President made the announcement on August 9th, after much deliberation and national debate.
Scientific research has determined that embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to develop into nearly all types of cells in the human body, could be cultivated and used to repair damaged adult tissues and organs. With this potential the cells could be used to treat degenerative diseases like AD.
“Based on preliminary work that has been privately funded, scientists believe further research using stem cells offers great promise that could help improve the lives of those who suffer from many terrible diseases—from juvenile diabetes to Alzheimer’s, from Parkinson’s to spinal cord injuries,” the President said.
“It gives us the opportunity to examine the potential of all stem cell approaches, including both embryonic as well as adult stem cells,” said Tommy Thompson secretary, department of Health and Human Services, “And it enables us to ensure a research structure of the highest scientific and ethical standards for stem cell research.”
According to a White House Fact sheet, the President’s decision permits federal funding for research on the more than 60 stem cell lines that have already been derived, but will not sanction or encourage the destruction of additional human embryos. Embryonic stem cells come from the inner cell mass of a human embryo. Stem cell lines are a mass of cells descendant from the original, and share its genetic characteristics.
Stem cell lines are the end product of the in vitro fertilization process used by many couples that cannot conceive children naturally. When physicians create new life outside of the mother’s womb they use more embryos than are typically planted in the mother. After the couple conceives, or if the procedure is unsuccessful, the remaining embryos are frozen in laboratories. Of these many are donated to science and used to establish privately owned stem cell research.
The way in which embryonic stem cells are retrieved has caused many bioethicists to rebuke the decision to publicly fund such research. Others see the promise in this new research but also stress caution in developing this science too quickly. According to Rebecca Dresser, professor of law and ethics in medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, scientists and researchers must avoid promises of “scientific salvation.”
“There is a widely held faith that research will rescue us from the burdens of being human – from the illnesses, suffering and death that go along with our status as biological organisms,” Dresser said. “By all means, let research on all kinds of stem cells proceed, but scientists and advocates need to be honest about the unknowns. They need to be forthcoming about the fact that stem cell research is in the very early stages and any actual benefits to patients are a long way off.”
Other scholars like Scott Gilbert professor of biology at Swarthmore College, see an opportunity for the return of a patient’s dignity that’s been minimalized by disease.
“Physicians often claim that disease not only affects the body but it can rob the dignity from a person,” he said “Thus, supporters of stem-cell research argue that it has the potential to restore dignity to the suffering, and might enable, for instance, the Alzheimer patient to be able to dress himself and recall experiences, the Parkinson’s patient to control her movements, and the paraplegic to walk and control his bowels. The danger is that one can enter upon a slippery slope wherein any technological procedure that can be done should be done.”
The government plans to spend 250 million dollars this year alone on stem cell related research.