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Understanding Stem Cell Research

When it comes to discussions of stem cell research, misunderstandings abound. Advocates for research that would require the destruction of human embryos frequently abet public confusion about what this research involves as well as grossly exaggerate its "promise." Even some people who call themselves pro- life have been enticed by these misunderstandings. Pro-lifers must be equipped to debate this topic with the facts.




What are "stem cells," and why are scientists so interested in them?

According to the federal National Institutes of Health (NIH), "A stem cell is a cell that has the ability to divide (self replicate) for indefinite periods . . . . Under the right conditions, or given the right signals, stem cells can give rise (differentiate) to the many different cell types that make up the organism. That is, stem cells have the potential to develop into mature cells that have characteristic shapes and specialized functions, such as heart cells, skin cells, or nerve cells."

Scientists believe it is possible to coax these immature stem cells into becoming new specialized cells for transplant into patients. They theorize that these new, healthy cells could repair or replace tissues that disease and disability have damaged.

Where are stem cells found, and how are they obtained?

There are many sources other than human embryos. In the adult organism ("adult" referring to humans or animals at any point after birth) a growing list of tissues that contain stem cells includes the bone marrow, blood stream, brain, spinal cord, dental pulp, skeletal muscle, skin, gastrointestinal tract, cornea, retina, liver, and pancreas. Another rich source of stem cells is the blood within umbilical cords and placentas no longer needed by newborn babies. New research shows that human fat contains stem cells. Adult stem cells are removed by medical procedures that do not harm the patient. However, the stem cells receiving the most public attention are found within human embryos. Researchers harvest these cells by extracting the "inner cell mass" (the 30-34 cells that will develop into the baby's tissues and organs) from the center of a human embryo in the first week of life. Removing these cells destroys the embryo.

What is a stem cell "line"?

A stem cell line is a "colony" of similar cells, that were originally cultured from a stem cell. Stored in laboratories, they can replicate for long periods. Because the cells will keep dividing, scientists can continually draw cells from stem cell lines for research or transplantation.

Where would scientists obtain embryos to destroy?

Advocates want to use frozen embryos from fertility clinics as their main source of stem cells. Often dubbed "leftover," "surplus," "spare," or "excess," these embryos were conceived during in vitro fertilization but were not implanted in a mother's womb. Fertility clinics typically offer three options to couples for embryos that are not implanted: destroy them, donate them to another couple, or freeze them and store them in case the first attempt at pregnancy fails or the couple wants to give birth to more of their children later. Overwhelmingly, couples choose to freeze their embryos. Some scientists wish to go further by creating embryos specifically for research that would destroy them. The embryos would be created either through in vitro fertilization, as scientists at the Jones Institute in Norfolk, Virginia, have done, or by a process that the bio-tech industry euphemistically calls "therapeutic cloning." The latter process involves the fusion of a body cell, such as a skin cell, with a human ova that has had its own DNA removed.

Will all of the frozen embryos really be discarded anyway?

No. In one study that recently appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, 59% of parents who originally intended to discard their embryos within three years changed their minds, instead attempting another pregnancy or donating their embryos to another couple. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine tells fertility clinics that they may destroy frozen embryos after five years of attempts to reach parents for a decision. New York Times article, however, shares testimony from doctors who discuss their own reluctance and parents' reluctance to go through with destroying the tiny humans. " Destroying embryos is a pretty final act," concedes Sean Tipton, a spokesperson for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "Doctors don't want to find themselves in court trying to defend an action like that." Says Dr. George J. Annas of the Boston University School of Public Health, "Other people may see embryos as nothing, but the people who created them don't." Frozen embryos have also been adopted by couples who would like to become parents but have not been able to conceive and/or carry to term a child of their own. Articles on embryo adoption that ran in the New York Times and the Cincinnati Post noted that many more couples want to adopt frozen embryos than there are embryos available for adoption.

You have probably heard that "people will die" unless the federal government gives money for embryonic stem cell research. Is there actual evidence that stem cells from human embryos will yield cures for diease?

Not at all. Human embryonic stem cells have not yet successfully treated any disease. Currently, the NIH says that "any therapies based on the use of human ES cells are still hypothetical and highly experimental." Scientists are only in the very preliminary stages of figuring out how to induce the cells to change into particular types of cells that could theoretically be transplanted into someone's body. Researchers have also encountered a number of safety concerns with embryonic stem cells. For example, when transplanted into a patient, embryonic stem cells have a tendency to form tumors. This tendency, says the NIH, "evokes the greatest level of concern."


What is the current state of research on adult stem cells?

Doctors already use adult stem cells to treat a host of human diseases, including cancers, autoimmune diseases, stroke, cartilage and bone damage, and blood and liver diseases. Scientists are continually discovering new capabilities of adult stem cells, human and animal. For example, using mice and rats, scientists have regrown nerve cells, reversed diabetes, and repaired hearts damaged by heart attack. There is also evidence of a universal adult stem cell that can change into any cell of the body. Despite the reported "promise" of embryonic stem cells, stem cells from adults are the ones that have been delivering true therapy. Dr. Donald Orlic of the National Human Genome Research Institute states, "We are currently finding that these adult stem cells can function as well, perhaps even better than, embryonic stem cells."






Adult Stem Cells, Not Embryonic, Cure Blindness in Dozens of Patients in Italy
Rome, Italy ( -- June 28, 2010

Full story at





What does public opinion say about stem cell research that would destroy human embryos?

Proponents of research that would require destroying human embryos cite wide margins of public support. Their polls, however, often fail to mention that embryos would be destroyed for their stem cells. A June 2001 ABCNews/ BeliefNet poll avoided that reality, and claimed support from 58% of Americans for "stem cell research." Here is the question they asked: "Sometimes fertility clinics produce extra fertilized eggs, also called embryos, that are not implanted in a woman's womb. These extra embryos either are discarded, or couples can donate them for use in medical research, called stem-cell research. Some people support stem-cell research, saying it's an important way to find treatments for many diseases. Other people oppose stem- cell research, saying it's wrong to use any human embryos for research purposes. What about you - - do you support or oppose stem-cell research?" Americans gave an entirely different answer when International Communications Research asked, "Stem cells are the basic cells from which all of a person's tissues and organs develop. Congress is considering whether to provide federal funding for experiments using stem cells from human embryos. The live embryos would be destroyed in their first week of development to obtain these cells. Do you support or oppose using your federal tax dollars for such experiments?" Given these details, 69.9% opposed government funding of such research. Only 23.9% expressed support.

What does the law have to say about research that would destroy human embryos?

Washington, DC ( -- The Obama administration is again proposing that taxpayers foot the bill for more embryonic stem cell research beyond what President Barack Obama's executive order has already funded. That's despite the fact that scientists are no closer to correcting problems with the cells to actually help patients. Currently adult stem cell research has helped patients dealing with more than 100 different diseases and conditions. On the other hand, embryonic stem cells have never been tried in humans because of problems in animal experiments with them causing tumors and the immune system rejecting them after injection for treatment.




Court Reinstates Lawsuit Against Obama's Embryonic Stem Cell Research Funding
Washington, DC ( -- June 28, 2010

Full story at