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Expert offers insight on controversial stem cell research

Wednesday, May 7, 2003
By Nardy Baeza Bickel
Staff writer
The Holland Sentinel

This is what the genetic dream looks like: Diabetic patients would start producing insulin. People suffering from multiple sclerosis would be able to stop the degenerative disorder and those suffering a progressive loss of sight would be able to see again.

There's only one small problem, and it is about the size of the head of a pin, according to a speaker at Hope College Tuesday night. It's the embryonic cell, a cell that contains all the genetic information needed to develop a fully grown human being or to repair any of its organs.

It's something that many oppose because of the belief that human life begins when conception occurs, and they consider the destruction of an embryo as to be the destruction of a human life. Also, questions have been raised as to whether it is ethical to create embryos with the sole purpose of stem cell extraction.

Tuesday, genetic expert Sam Rhine, director of the Genetic Ed Center in Indiana, addressed ethical issues that accompany research on the use of stem cells to treat diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease in the "Genetics Awareness Conference" at Hope's Peale Science Center.

"The dream to control the embryonic cell is slowly coming," Rhine told an audience of about 40 people. "The only problem is that you have to grow the embryonic cell in a petri dish."

In his presentation, Rhine explained that embryonic stem cells -- a human egg that has been fertilized -- are cells produced during the first days after conception but prior to cell differentiation. An embryonic cell can become a blood, neurological or any of the 210 types of cells the human body contains.

He said that another type of cells, adult stem cells, are those that have "specialized" in four areas (blood, neurological and brain, muscle and cartilage and internal organs). Although they are more specialized, they could also be reproduced to help people with specific genetic diseases to overcome them.

Currently, researchers are studying both adult stem cells and embryonic stem in an attempt to discover how to make the cells specialize and develop into a specific type of cell.

"It's like everything else. The more you know, the more you know you don't know," said Hope College math professor Mary DeYoung of the presentation. "It's definitely worth exploration."

Those who oppose stem cell research compare it to abortion, arguing that no human life should be terminated to save or improve someone else's.

In 2001, President Bush allowed limited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research on 60 existing embryo stem cell lines, which have since been destroyed.

"I still have to sort it out," said an attendee who declined to be identified. "I have not made up my mind yet."

Rhine attended Indiana University, Indiana School of Medicine, and Harvard Medical School and has devoted himself to genetics education for more than 20 years.

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