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Embryonic stem cell use poses dilemma

February 1, 2004
Michelle Foisy, 17; Izaak Hayes, 13; and Collin LaMothe, 14

Should you destroy a life to save a life? That question is facing many scientists in the lab today.

Youths are also talking about this issue. At School 91, 5111 Evanston Ave., middle-school students presented reports on the pros and cons of embryonic stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cells are highly prized by researchers because they have the potential to develop into cells for almost any organ or tissue. For example, scientists believe embryonic skin cells eventually can be grown to produce skin for burn victims or spinal cord cells for quadriplegics and paraplegics.

New Jersey and California have passed laws permitting research on embryonic stem cells; similar bills are pending in Illinois and New York. But in 2001, President Bush restricted federal funding for this research to approximately 60 stem cell lines from embryos that have already been destroyed.

"The real focus," said David Prentice, a life sciences professor at Indiana State University, "is, what kind of respect or value do we give to a very early human life? The embryonic stem cells that have been most in the news are taken from a human embryo that's only about 5 to 7 days old. At that point you don't look like you look now; you look like a little ball with some cells inside, and it's the cells inside that are the embryonic stem cells," he said.

"The ethical problem with this research is you have to kill that embryo -- you have to break it apart to get those cells out of the center and grow them. Now, a lot of people are hoping that those cells could go ahead and make other tissues to treat diseases like Parkinson's and heart disease and diabetes," Prentice added. "But the problem then -- the ethical or moral problem -- is, you had to kill the embryo to get there."

Prentice opposes embryonic stem cell research, focusing his research on isolating stem cells from the blood of adults. In 1999, he started the organization Do No Harm, which promotes medical research that does not destroy human life in any form.

Dr. Paul Haut, a pediatric oncologist at Riley Hospital for Children, serves on the hospital's stem cell transplant team, which uses stem cells from a patient's blood or bone marrow. "Most of the work that I do with stem cell transplantation is to try to help children who have either cancer or who have diseases which affect their blood or their bone marrow or their immune system," he said.

Haut supports embryonic stem cell research "under the right conditions."

"Some people think it's never going to be right to study these things. Other people apparently feel that there is no harm in looking into these things at all. And probably the right answer, which is true with a lot of things, is some middle ground," he said.

Adriann Moorman, Amber Spradley and Renee Smyth, eighth-graders at School 91, agree with Haut that embryonic stem cells need to be investigated.

"I don't really understand why people have such a problem with using them when it's really trying to find a cure for many diseases," Adriann said.

"It's good because it could help cure Alzheimer's and other diseases," Renee added.

Haut does not support creating and then destroying embryos only to harvest their cells. However, he would consider alternatives, such as using embryos "left over" from couples' attempts at in vitro fertilization. "If they were already created and they're not otherwise going to be used . . . then I think that's a different story," he said.

The girls also support the use of leftover embryos or other unwanted cells. For instance, "it's OK to use it if the mother is aborting the child," Adriann said.

Prentice also opposes embryonic research because it has not proved very promising so far, with tissue from such cells forming tumors in many cases.

"Even though human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998, mouse embryonic stem cells have been available since 1981. . . . In all of that time, definitely no patients have been helped -- they haven't even tried it with humans because it's not safe," he said. "They haven't even cured a single mouse."

On the other hand, research is showing mature stem cells to be effective in several situations.

"I do adult stem cell research, and when I look at the ethics, when I look at the published science, they're far and away much more effective. They're safe. There's no problem with tumor formation. You can use your own stem cells," he said.

"Adult stem cells are already treating patients for conditions like cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis, growing new corneas to restore sight to blind patients, repairing damage after a heart attack, helping Parkinson's patients."

These are the type of stem cells Haut uses in his work. "These cells come either from your blood or from the umbilical cord or from the bone marrow," he said.

But the big attraction of embryonic cells is that they can create great quantities of new cells, unlike adult cells, Prentice says.

Haut believes such possibilities should be investigated. "Unless we can continue to do studies with all the different types of stem cells, we're not going to know the answers."

The girls support federal funding of embryonic cell research and say their parents do, too.

"My mother basically had the same feelings that I had because we know several people who have lost their lives because of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's," Adriann said.

Haut said safeguards must be in place before any embryonic stem cells are obtained for research. "You're not going to put people at risk. You're also not going to have people doing research where the findings are going to be questionable."

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