Monday, June 06, 2005

A Hard Cell? or Do We Stem The Tide Of Research?

Stem Cell
Originally uploaded by Marinade Dave.
I remember, here in Orlando, a young girl who had a chance to go to New York City on a business trip. It was optional. She asked me for advice. I told her to go for it. It was a chance of a lifetime. You are old enough now and it is time to break out of your shell, to see what the world has to offer. She chose not to go. She'll probably never know what she missed, unless she has opened her mind since then.

Early Christian and political leaders believed that the world was flat and the center of the universe and punished scientists who thought otherwise. Some were put to death for their heresy and others were imprisoned or severely castigated for their teachings based on scientific facts of the day. Many governments adhered to strict interpretations of the Old and New Testaments. What part or scriptures of the Bible spoke of the world being flat? Where does it state that the earth is the center of the universe? Early church and political doctrine was clearly based on a patriarchal interpretation of the Bible, to suit their own needs and prejudices. What they professed was based on an innate fear that change is the devil's work. These beliefs shut out many who came up with sound and logical ideas. Where would we be now if the church did not bend its own rules throughout the ages? Today, many hospitals are affiliated with organized religion. If science, through the church, closed its doors to research, where would these hospitals be today? There would be no one working on cures for cancer. Organ transplants would not exist.

But, does experimentation upon human life at any stage of development have a place in a civilized society? That is a question of great debate.

When does human life begin? Generally, there are three positions to be noted. One is that it begins with the existence of the egg. Another is with the fertilization of the egg, and the third maintains that life begins at the awareness of one's own being. By that, I mean, pretty much when one realizes, "Hey! Let me out of here!" In baby-speak, of course.

Recently, a Harvard stem cell scientist asked the following question: “Imagine an In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) clinic that has caught fire and will burn to the ground. There is one person who is left trapped within the burning building along with thousands of fertilized eggs stored in liquid nitrogen tanks. Who will the firemen attempt to save?” I think we all know the answer to that question. But think about it. Thousands of human lives are destroyed to save one person, if you believe life begins at fertilization.

Since the advent of successful IVF in the seventies, leftover eggs and embryos have been routinely discarded. Why then, are there no arguments for the sake of protecting these? Why are they being allowed to be thrown away? What makes it all right to discard them if they are considered by many to be human life? Where are the watchdog groups? They only seem to be there when the stem cell and cloning issues arise. Who authorized the harvesting of eggs for IVF to begin with? Isn't this also experimenting with human life?

A frozen egg, fertilized or not, could be maintained for years beyond the typical 18 one gets to claim as dependents on their taxes. Someone has to pay for keeping these eggs intact. Certainly, the IRS is not going to offer a deduction on eggs or embryos. I believe the official position was explained when expectant parents tried to claim fetuses as dependents and the government shot back: We need a footprint. We need a fingerprint. We need a birth certificate. Is it true, then, that the IRS, a federal government agency, does not recognize these objects as viable human life? Consequently, how much involvement should the federal government (or any state with an income tax that allows deductions for dependents) have over this issue?

Stem cells are primitive "master" cells that can be programmed to become many kinds of tissue. Human stem cell cloning, as far as it has advanced today, in my opinion, should not be used to make genetically identical babies - called reproductive cloning. That is not what stem cell research and cloning is all about. Unfortunately, a lot of people think that way, since Dolly, the sheep, was "born." And that's all they know. There are ways to utilize stem cells for the benefit of humankind without risking life.

In the case of clinical experiments currently being explored in Korea, to make them patient-specific, researchers have taken DNA from the skin cells of volunteers and put this genetic material into donated human eggs that have had their own genetic material extracted. These eggs were grown to a very early stage of embryo development, when they were just small balls of cells. The scientists then extracted the stem cells. When researchers examined them in the laboratory, the cells appeared to be immunologically compatible to the individual who donated the DNA. This could potentially lead to the eradication of diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer's, by using your own cells to rebuild and cure yourself. This, by no intentions, means you can perpetually replace cells and parts and live forever. But I wouldn't mind growing another head of hair.

Many people equate this research to creating life, like the Frankenstein monster - in other words, to go against the laws of God and/or nature. In their minds it is morally wrong and reprehensible. I don't think there are any passages in the Bible that clearly address this, among many other issues, so what do we do? Who is qualified to set ground rules? What do we base these rules on? Who polices all the labs in the world? For every black there is a white. Do we keep it white or black or do we use the grey matter in our heads to come up with some kind of working solution? This is the future. There are alternatives, such as obtaining adult stem cells from other means, like bone marrow and vascular organs. At least open your mind to research at different levels. Get to know more about stem cell research before formulating an opinion generally based on religious or political views. Have compassion for the afflicted. What can we do to help? These people might otherwise die. Aren't their lives worth saving? My mother is a diabetic. Wouldn't it be great if a cure were just around the corner? My brother-in-law has leukemia (AML.) Where would he be without the bone marrow transplant he recently underwent?

What if scientists never looked beyond the confines of what is commonly referred to as "acceptable" research? Acceptable to whom and by what consensus? Would the world still be as flat as their minds?

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