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Controversies Surrounding Stem Cell Research
Remember stem cells? They were one of the biggest scientific controversies of the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency.
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Around this time, scientists realized that embryoonic stem cells had the uncanny ability to transform into virtually any cell in the human body, which could potentially lead to new treatments for many diseases. On the other hand, the extraction of these stem cells required the destruction of human embryos, which some pro-lifers opposed.
The stem cell debate has become very heated. But then…it just disappeared from public view. So what happened to stem cells?
Several elements helped to attenuate the controversy. In the late 21st century, researchers discovered other ways to create cells similar to embryonic stem cells without destroying human embryos, a promising advance that helped alleviate one aspect of the culture war. Then, in 2009, Obama slightly eased Bush-era restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research, and the compromise seemed to calm both sides somewhat.
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This is why, recently, scientists have been patiently continuing their research on stem cells, in a less noisy atmosphere. This work has in fact enabled several advances, such as the restoration of part of the vision to 10 patients suffering from eye diseases. However, the stem cell controversy is not yet dead. Scientists may still need cells from embryos to develop certain treatments. If it turns out that non-embryo stem cells are not efficient enough, it could reignite the culture wars. Here is the debate guide:
Shinya Yamanaka (right) receives flowers from the Swedish ambassador to Japan in 2012, after the announcement that Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)
Embryonic stem cells are attracting the attention of scientists because they have the potential to develop into virtually any cell in the human body – such as insulin-producing cells in people with diabetes, brain cells in people with of Parkinson’s disease, or even whole new organs to replace defective ones. those.
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But for many people, there was a huge ethical problem: their creation required the destruction of an embryo. This is why, in 2001, George W. Bush decided to limit federal research funding to a list of 60 pre-existing embryonic stem cell lines (to prevent the destruction of other embryos). Many scientists found these rules too strict. Hence the controversy.
But in 2007, Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka and his colleagues succeeded in bringing adult human cells to embryo-like flexibility. In other words, they managed to create cells that appeared to resemble embryonic stem cells – but this didn’t require destroying the embryo. (These new cells were called induced pluripotent stem cells, IPSCs). Other researchers began to discover that adult stem cells also had similar, albeit more limited, properties.
Meanwhile, politics has changed. In 2009, Barack Obama took office and signed an executive order that somewhat eased Bush’s restrictions on embryonic stem cells. Under the new regulations, the federal government would fund work on new stem cell lines, but only if they were created from embryos left behind by fertility clinics and with nongovernmental funds. This compromise seems to help calm the controversy.
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Value of visual ability after embryonic stem cell treatment (red line) in patients with macular degeneration over 360 days. (Schwartz et al., The Lancet, October 15, 2014)
Although the controversy has died down, stem cell research is gaining momentum, with scientists making advances in the field of embryonic and non-embryo cells.
Most initial research into stem cell therapies focused on eye treatments. (This is because stem cell therapies can be unpredictable and have sometimes led to cancer in previous experiments. A tumor in the eye would be relatively easier to treat and remove than hidden tumors deeper in the body.)
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In October 2014, researchers at Advanced Cell Technology (now Ocata Therapeutics) showed that they had created new retinal cells from embryonic stem cells for 18 patients who were losing their vision. Then, 10 of them had an improvement in their vision. Another group of researchers in Japan is trying to do the same with non-embryo cells (the aforementioned IPSCs).
Other embryonic stem cell research has focused on developing cells that can help treat spinal cord injuries. Geron began safety studies in these patients in 2010.
Although several groups continue to work on embryonic stem cells, many are now focusing on non-embryonic stem cells such as IPSCs because they are less controversial. “Everyone jumped on the IPS[C] train very, very quickly because it was eligible for federal funding, and then all the [embryo] controversy was removed,” says Susan Solomon, CEO of Stem Cell Foundation, based in New York.
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But Solomon also believes that researchers have moved away from embryonic stem cells too quickly. “We decided it was definitely too early for that,” he adds. His organization is continuing its research into embryonic stem cells, in part because they may be able to do things that non-embryonic stem cells cannot do. It’s simply too early to tell.
It is important to note that despite all the hype generated over the years, stem cell science is growing at the same slow pace as most fields of science. There are still no FDA-approved therapies using embryonic stem cells or IPSCs. This means that the controversy over whether embryonic stem cells are necessary in science and medicine remains unresolved.
That said, the fight for stem cells has not stopped forever. There will likely be more conflicts in the future.
Stem Cell Research
Even after the Obama administration relaxed funding rules for stem cell research, many obstacles remain. For example, federal funding is currently prohibited for research on embryonic stem cell lines obtained through a technique called SCNT, or cloning, which requires the creation of embryos in a laboratory.
The technique could one day prove useful because it could convert a person’s own cells into a tailor-made line of embryonic stem cells, which would prevent a person’s immune system from rejecting stem cell treatment.
In 2013 and 2014, two groups published the first demonstrations of this technique using human cells. However, all of this research in the United States must be conducted with private funds.
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In addition, some states outright ban all or part of stem cell research on their territory, regardless of who funds it:
Note: Minnesota has unclear laws that are currently interpreted to mean that embryonic stem cell research is acceptable. Missouri law is somewhat contradictory. Further details can be found on the Hinxton Group website, which includes citations to the relevant legislation.
“We went from a legislative vacuum to the current patchwork, with laws passed in every jurisdiction where interest groups had enough clout to get the job done,” Alan Regenberg, director of advocacy and support at the research at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute for Bioethics, told me by email.
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Several factors can restart the fight against stem cells. For example, a clinical trial could produce truly impressive results for a certain type of stem cell treatment, reigniting the debate over whether regulations should be relaxed. Conversely, a social conservative might run for president and raise ethical questions during the campaign. And no matter who occupies the White House in 2016, it’s reasonable to expect major changes in federal policy — and quickly. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both implemented their policies during their first year in office.
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Stem Cell Research Controversy
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