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Q&A: Frequently asked questions about stem cell research

Updated July 6, 2009

WASHINGTON (BP)–Following is a list of frequently asked questions, along with answers, about stem cells.

— What are stem cells?

Stem cells are the body’s master cells from which all cells and tissues are formed. Because some types of stem cells in theory can develop into any type of tissue, they seemingly hold the promise to cure diseases and other ailments.

— Where are stem cells found?

Generally, in two sources: 1) throughout the human body, such as in skin cells, and 2) in embryos. Stem cells found in the human body are referred to as “adult stem cells,” while stem cells in the second category are known as “embryonic stem cells.” Adult stem cell research — which even has involved stem cells from umbilical cord blood — is harmless and is not controversial. Embryonic stem cell research, though, requires the destruction of embryos and is very controversial. President Obama’s executive order pertained primarily to this second category.

— What did President Obama’s March 9 stem cell executive order do?

Obama’s order overturned President Bush’s stem cell limits, which had prohibited federal funds from being used for conducting research on embryonic stem cell lines created after Aug. 9, 2001 (the date of Bush’s announcement). Obama’s order allows taxpayer dollars to be used for funding research on hundreds of other embryonic stem cell lines. Technically, under Obama’s order — and the subsequent July 6 National Institutes of Health guidelines — researchers won’t be allowed to use federal funds to destroy embryos. (A Congressional amendment known as the Dickey-Wicker Amendment prevents federally funding the destruction of embryos.) Researchers will, though, be able to conduct federally funded research on stem cells that were taken from embryos destroyed in the private sector. Critics say the new NIH guidelines — while not directly funding it — will encourage the destruction of more embryos.

— Was embryonic stem cell research banned prior to Obama’s order?

No. All embryonic stem cell research has been legal in the private sector, and some of it (see above) already was receiving federal funding.

— Didn’t Obama say he was opposed to human cloning?

Not really. Obama appeared to rule out human cloning in his statement, but he also issued a qualifier. He said, “We will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.” Obama apparently is opposed to reproductive cloning — that is, the actual cloning of a person whereby a baby is born — but he is leaving the door open for federal funds being used for therapeutic cloning, which is the cloning of an embryo in order to harvest its stem cells. In other words, he may be for cloning, as long as the cloned embryo is destroyed. Opponents call it “cloning and killing.” The same laboratory procedure — known as somatic cell nuclear transfer — is used for both types of cloning. The only difference between the two types is what is done with the embryo once it is cloned. The July 6 NIH guidelines prohibit federal funding for using stem cells derived from therapeutic cloning, although the new rules seem to imply that the policy could change if public opinion changes.

— Why do some people oppose embryonic stem cell research?

For three basic reasons: 1) it requires the destruction of embryos, tiny human beings, 2) adult stem cell research, thus far, has had more success, and 3) a new form of stem cell research known as “induced pluripotent” stem cell research could provide embryonic-like stem cells without the ethical dilemma. Some opponents of embryonic stem cell research also say the “extra” embryos — which often are donated by fertility clinics — should instead be given a chance to be adopted in “snowflake” embryo adoption programs, whereby they would be implanted in a woman and grow into a baby.

— What are induced pluripotent stem cells?

Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) are a new form of stem cells whereby scientists reprogram adult skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells — and thus provide scientists with the stem cells they desire without the need to destroy embryos. Embryos are not destroyed or created during the process. iPS stem cells were introduced to the world during a breakthrough announcement in 2007, and on March 2 of this year scientists announced they had found a better way to make them that would be safer for patients. One scientist involved in the March 2 announcement said iPS stem cells perhaps could eliminate “the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells.” Dr. Mehmet Oz of “Oprah” fame said during a March show that he believes the “stem cell debate is dead” because of the promise of iPS stem cells and because, he said, embryonic stem cells have a tendency to become cancer. Additionally, a venture capital firm that former vice-president Al Gore is a part of announced in April it was putting $20 million toward iPS stem cell research.

— What does “pluripotent” mean?

The term “pluripotent” means the stem cells theoretically can morph into any of the body’s issues. Embryonic stem cells also are pluripotent. By contrast, adult stem cells are “multipotent,” meaning they can morph into many, though not all, of the body’s cell types. iPS stem cells would have an advantage over embryonic stem cells in that they would already have the patient’s own DNA — because the patient’s skin cell was used to make them. They would, then, be less likely to be rejected by the patient’s body. There have yet to be any human trials using iPS stem cells.

— If induced pluripotent stem cell research shows so much progress, then why do scientists support embryonic stem cell research?

Scientists who back research involving embryos say they are excited about the potential of iPS research but want both types to be funded to determine which one is more successful.

— Has embryonic stem cell research in the private sector found any cures?

No. Scientists have struggled to control embryonic stem cells in the lab. Often, experiments involving such stem cells in animals have led to tumors. Bernadine Healy, the head of the National Institutes of Health under the first President Bush, wrote in a March 4 column for U.S. News & World Report that “several events” since Obama took office have “reinforced the notion that embryonic stem cells, once thought to hold the cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and diabetes, are obsolete.” She pointed in part to the iPS breakthrough.

— Has adult stem cell research led to any cures?

Although scientists who work with adult stem cell research probably wouldn’t use the word “cure,” they have seen adult stem cells do wonders in specific patients. One organization that keeps track of such advances — known as Do No Harm — says adult stem cells have treated 73 different ailments, including diabetes and leukemia. In fact, most of the attention-grabbing headlines relating to advances in stem cell research involve adult stem cells, not embryonic stem cells.

— How long will it take scientists to find cures involving embryonic stem cells?

No one knows, but it likely is years away, at best. In 2006 a California institute, set up to oversee $3 billion in public embryonic stem cell funding, released a report with its goals. The report promised no cures at the end of a 10-year period and said the institute simply hoped to have “preliminary evidence” from at least one embryonic stem cell trial at the end of the period. Scientists’ understanding of embryonic stem cells, the report said, is “incomplete.” By contrast, “Oprah’s” Dr. Oz said he believes researchers are “single-digit years” away from finding treatments using iPS stem cells.
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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