| The Elly Report: Local Perspectives
The Debate Over Embryonic Stem Cell Research
by Jim Fraser, Selectman, Town of Leicester
The 184th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently took time from the annual budget debate to engage in the age-old rite of spring, the Science Fair. I have had the good fortune to be a judge at many local science fairs. Every year there is one student who has set up an incubator with chicken eggs and has timed the incubation period so that the chicks will hatch during the fair. It's a classic. Apparently, the 184th was getting nostalgic and, with an adult's prerogative, decided to recreate that scholastic experience with a twist. Instead of using chicken embryos to create a scientific "Wow!", they've decided to let adult scientists use human embryos. The 184th recently passed a bill, by a veto-proof majority, legalizing the use of human embryonic stem cells for research and therapeutic use. The most controversial point of the 184th's Science Fair project was the harvesting of stem cells using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer or therapeutic cloning.
Stem cells, sometimes called progenitor cells, are primitive cells that can give rise to other types of cells. There are numerous classes of stem cells. Totipotent cells posses the genetic information to differentiate into any type of cell in the human body. Totipotent cells are present in a human embryo in the first few days after fertilization. As the embryo develops, the cells become more specialized, resulting in pluripotent cells. Pluripotent cells can differentiate into every type of cell/tissue, with the exception of the placenta. Sources for pluripotent stem cells include fetal germ cells from pregnancies terminated between 5 and 9 weeks and "leftover" frozen embryos created in fertility clinics. Lastly, there are multipotent cells. These cells can develop into cell types found in the tissue from which they originated. Adult stem cells and umbilical cord cells are multipotent. These cells can be supplied by donors and cultured in a laboratory setting.
Therapeutic cloning has more recently been referred to by its technical name, somatic cell nuclear transfer, because proponents do not want anyone to equate this procedure with human cloning. The technique of therapeutic cloning, or somatic cell nuclear transfer, is fairly simple. An egg cell is stripped of its nucleus. The original nucleus is replaced with the nucleus from an individual's somatic cell. This step creates an egg with the indivudal's DNA. The egg starts to divide and eventually forms a hollow sphere known as a blastocyte. The inner cells of the blastocyte are harvested, isolated, and cultured to create a stem cell line. The human embryo, basically, served as an incubator for the stem cells. These pluripotent stem cells can be cultured to produce cells for the desired therapy.
With that technical background, it is important to note that not one therapy has been developed to date, anywhere on the planet, using embryonic stem cells. Every therapy to date has been developed using adult stem cells. There is no proof, whatsoever, that pluripotent, embryonic cells are more successful at creating therapeutic platforms than the multipotent, adult stem cells. The theory may be grounded in logic, i.e. that developing, undifferentiated cells are more easily transformed into desired cell/tissue types, but the fact is, this is a completely unproven hypothesis. Even if one wishes to ignore the moral issue of creating an embryo for the sole purpose of facilitating somatic cell nuclear transfer or the fundamental question is a human embryo a human life, one cannot ignore the simple fact that there is no scientific premise for declaring that cures will be unavailable to the public if the embryos aren't created, and subsequently destroyed, for scientific inquiry.
For reasons known only to the legislators, the 184th felt a compelling urge to set aside their statutory obligation to draft a budget and pursue the metaphysical inquiry of determining when life begins, what constitutes life, should a human embryo be converted into an incubator, and what should be sacrificed for the common good. The legislators may have been trying to allay scientist's fears of government censorship of their work or they may have been trying to maintain a perceived competitive edge for the Commonwealth in this technology. I don't know. I do know, however, that we are incredibly fortunate that the 184th has the technical experience, the training, and the ethical perspective to deliberate and vote on these subjects within one week's time. With the exception of the human embryo as incubator dilemma, metaphysicians, philosophers, theologians, and scientists have grappled, unsuccessfully, with these problems, since time immemorial. The 184th was able to resolve these fundamental issues in a week. Issues with the Quinn Bill, Education Reform, Civil service, housing, medical assistance, budget timing, and managing a turnpike have stumped our legislative bodies for many years. But the 184th was able to determine that for about $70.00 a year, it's OK to create embryos, then destroy the embryos while strip mining their cells in order to develop an unnecessary cell line to support an unproven therapy.
They get first prize at the Fair.
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