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THE FUTURE OF STEM CELL RESEARCH IN THE UNITED STATES

By Michael Walker
  

INTRODUCTION

The relationship between science and religion throughout history has been one of theoretical conflict and deeply held passion. As the great scientists of the Renaissance pushed the boundaries of the orthodox beliefs, the church fought to uphold them. Darwin withheld his work on the evolution of man because he knew of this delicate relationship and the potentially dangerous consequences that could result from challenging religious beliefs.?Today we have the opportunity that only few in history have had: to see first hand an explosion of thought and innovation. This technological revolution has already benefited many by making business and industrial work more efficient. This revolution has also started to change the world of medicine and the environment. The potential to save millions of lives is real, as is the danger to our own civilization. Science and religion once again are conflicting, yet the benefits of the current technological revolution are too great to deny and definitely worthy of compromise. One of the current issues being discussed by the scientific and religious community is the use of stem cells from a human fetus to further medical research and possibly use to treat serious health problems. The future of stem cell research in the United States depends on how the public reacts over the next few years. If Americans are aware of the benefits of stem cell research by positive publicity and strict guidelines are adopted for all scientific institutions to follow, than stem cell research will be possible and the benefits quickly realized.

Human Pluripotent Stem Cells, or simply called stem cells, are "the basic cells in newly formed embryos that generate all other tissues in the body?(Murphy, 1). This amazing ability to generate human tissues is the main attraction for scientist of medical research. In November 1998 these cells were discovered by James Thompson and John Gearhart and since many scientists have started to do research with them. Kevin Murphy states "stem cell research, which is legal if privately financed, has shown promise in curing diabetes, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injuries, heart ailments and other illnesses?(1). The potential for curing all of these diseases has many scientist, and venture capitalists, interested in researching the cells. Scientists currently researching the cells believe that if they are injected into certain parts of the body they will rebuild any damaged or dead cells. For example if a stroke victim injected stem cells into his/her brain where the damage from the restricted blood flow was, then those cells would rejuvenate and repair any damage. The potential to cure many life threatening diseases makes stem cell research necessary and promising.

All children and adults have stem cells, but scientists have not had as much success with these cells as they have had with those from embryos. Jeremy Olson states "the problem for some is that embryos are destroyed in the process of obtaining these cells, offending people who believe that embryos are human lives with rights?(1). Many religious groups are against the use of embryonic stem cells to further medical research because they believe that life starts when the embryo is formed and anything that stops the natural process of the embryo is murder. The Pope has come out and said that he believes that the soul enters the body at the exact moment of conception. These religious groups have had success in the United States fighting abortion and research using embryos. A huge publicity campaign by these groups has been extremely effectual on the issue of partial birth or late term abortions. In a recent Gallup poll taken on April 2 66% of all Americans would make the procedure known as partial birth abortion illegal (Gallup, 9). This overwhelming majority is almost certainly due to the intense publicity effort by the religious community. These groups have had success fighting research as well, for "in 1995, Congress passed a ban on federal funding of research using human embryos?(Berg and Goldstein, 1). Although stem cell research could be potentially revolutionary, many religious groups oppose it because the embryo is destroyed in the process. These groups have been successful in similar areas of abortion and embryo research to center the debate and influence the American people.

THE NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF HEALTH GUIDELINES

Although Congress banned federal funding of embryonic research in 1995, it said nothing of stem cells. However, in 1999 the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that federally funded researchers could perform stem cell experiments as long as the embryos came from privately funded resources. This decision led to the National Institutes of Health releasing guidelines on stem cell research. These guidelines were praised by more than 25 patient and health advocacy groups including the American Medical Association and the American Association for Cancer Research (American Society for Cell Biology Press Release, August 23, 2000). Berg and Goldstein state that "the NIH guidelines are appropriately restrictive and responsive to the sensibilities of those who are concerned that work proceed only under careful ethical oversight?(2). The guidelines require that federally funded labs use embryos only with the consent of the donor, and the embryos can only come from excess frozen reserves that would have been used for in-vitro fertilization. These excess embryos would probably be discarded due to an abundant supply throughout the country. Any research firm receiving federal funds would have to meet these specific requirements, but there is proof that the entire scientific community agrees with the guidelines and will adopt them. The guidelines give the public the opportunity to influence the ethical practices of research firms and they give scientists reasonable barriers and lucrative federal funds.

The decision to use federal funding for stem cell research and the adoption of the NIH guidelines are two positive developments for the future of stem cell research. The governments use of federal funds will increase research and development of cures. This funding also gives the government some leverage with research firms by determining that ethical guidelines be met in order to receive funds. The federal government should increase the amount of money it provides for stem cell research and continue to carefully watch all firms that experiment with embryonic cells. The government can continue to explore research guidelines and change them if necessary. Federal funding also has positive economic impacts as well. In Maryland, a state-sponsored venture capital fund has invested $11.2 million in 32 biotech companies. The Enterprise Investment Fund has helped to create 1,200 jobs and profited $46.8 million from sales of stock (Bell, 1). Some of these companies include stem cell research firms. The use of federal funding for stem cell research will increase development, provide the government with leverage over ethical issues, and fuel the economy by creating jobs.

FUTURE STRATEGIES TO INSURE STEM CELL RESEARCH

The use of federal funds for stem cell research and guidelines will help protect the future of stem cell research. However, leadership and public awareness are necessary to insure that stem cell experiments continue and that the full potential of stem cells is realized. In the United States, there is some evidence that political leaders understand the value of stem cell research. Recently the United State's Senate proposed the "Stem Cell Research Act of 2000?this bill has bipartisan support and would allow federally funded scientists to derive stem cells themselves. The Senate has shown leadership on this issue, but they are constantly bombarded by well-organized and determined opposition to stem cell research. After the NIH set forth the guidelines for stem cell research right to life groups flooded members of Congress with letters. For this reason, it is important that a publicity campaign be enacted to inform the public of stem cell research. Federal funding and guidelines may provide fertile ground for stem cell research, but they do not protect it from the well-organized groups that are against it. If these groups are able to influence Congress and pursue them with election money, than stem cell research may be outlawed. The best way to combat this potential danger is to inform the public of stem cell research and the NIH guidelines. Film stars that diagnosed with life threatening diseases have testified before the Senate. Christopher Reeve, who suffered a spinal cord injury, and Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, told their stories and how stem cell research could change their lives and those of countless others. This publicity will help inform the public of stem cell research and allow them to decide for themselves about the ethical dilemmas. However, these groups should consider bigger publicity campaigns to advertise the potential benefits of stem cell research and the ethical standards that have been adopted. Congressional leadership and a publicity campaign to inform people of the benefits and adopted standards of stem cell research are necessary to insure the future of stem cell research.

POTENTIAL COMPROMISE WITH RELIGIOUS GROUPS

Although many religious groups oppose stem cell research, and would ban it if given the chance, it is important for the future of stem cell research to continue to compromise with these groups. The NIH guidelines were opposed by many of these groups, yet for many moderate Christians it justified their acceptance of stem cell research. The scientific community should continue to develop ethical standards and research ways to acquire stem cells without destroying an embryo in the process. Also scientists should continue to research the capabilities of adult stem cells for "recent studies have suggested. . . that the adult stem cells may have more usefulness than once thought?(Olson, 2). If the scientific community can find a way to acquire stem cells without destroying the embryo or a way to use adult stem cells, it will almost certainly quiet any critics to their research. Until these techniques develop it is important that the scientific community continue to administer ethical guidelines and inform the public of their research. It is important to compromise with the religious community and attempt to find common ground, but if common ground is not possible the scientific community must inform the public and continue to use and develop ethical boundaries.

CONCLUSION

As technology and biology continue to become one science, the divide between the scientific and religious community will become greater. This war of ideology is nothing new, but the new consequences of failure are tremendous. Potentially millions of people will benefit from stem cell research and possibly millions of lives saved. This is why the scientific community must continue to research stem cells with caution and ethics. The NIH guidelines and the increase in federal funding will help to protect the future of stem cell research, but to insure the future for research the scientific community needs Congressional leadership and a publicity campaign to inform the public. They should also continue to develop ways to increase ethical standards and possibly compromise with the religious community by finding ways to acquire stem cells without destroying the embryo and exploring the potential of adult stem cells. If the public is informed of the possible cures that could come from stem cell research and of the strict guidelines that have been adopted than they will push Congress to fund more of these projects, and if the religious community knows that scientists are working to find a way to accomplish this research without harming embryos and/or by using adult stem cells they will be more comfortable with it and embrace stem cell research. Stem cell research in the United States has an exciting and possibly phenomenal future, and if the appropriate steps are taken this research will not be endangered by the religious community but accepted by them and the public.

WORKS CITED

Bell, Julie. Another bid for biotech benefits. The Baltimore Sun. September 28, 2000. http://lexis-nexis.com/universe/doc

Berg, Paul and Goldstein, Lawrence. Why federal support of stem cell research is necessary. The San Diego Union. September 21, 2000. http://lexis-nexis.com/universe/doc

Gallup Poll, Abortion Issues 2000. http://www.gallup.com

Murphy, Kevin. Research Barrier Debated. The Kansas City Star. September 15, 2000. http://lexis-nexis.com/universe/doc

Olson, Jeremy.?NU Panel Debates Stem Cell Research. The Omaha World Herald. September 21, 2000. http://lexis-nexis.com/universe/doc

 

 


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