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Stem Cell Research and Cloning

The Promise of Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research offers amazing potential for treating many medical conditions that previously could not be helped. 

A stem cell is simply an immature cell that has the ability to grow into any of the different types of cells in the human body. By harnessing the power of stem cells, scientists may be able to use them to generate tissue to replace diseased organs and repair damaged nerves, muscle, and bone.

Stem cells already have been used to treat many medical conditions, including some types of cancer, blindness, Parkinson’s disease, and even spinal cord injury. In fact, more than 70 conditions have been  successfully treated using stem cells.

All the successful treatments have used what are called “adult” stem cells!

Adult vs. embryonic: What's the Difference?

Stem cells exist all through the human body. Stem cells can be obtained ethically from a person's own tissues, blood, and bone marrow.  Stem cells also are found plentifully in menstrual blood, amniotic fluid, and in the blood of a newborn baby’s umbilical cord and placenta, which are usually discarded as medical waste. All of these cells are considered “adult” stem cells.

Some researchers, however, are not content to study these stem cells, which are available in almost unlimited supply. They want funds to support their research involving embryonic stem cells, which are obtained by killing human embryos.

Human embryonic stem cells  may be obtained from frozen embryos left after in vitro fertilization. Proponents of embryonic stem cell research argue that these embryos should be used for research because they “are going to die anyway.” But frozen embryos can be adopted by infertile couples and given a chance at life.

Ultimately, however, large-scale research projects involving embryonic stem cells will require many more embryos than the number that currently are kept in frozen storage. Such research will create a “need” for thousands of embryos to be created in the laboratory — either by in vitro fertilization or by cloning.

Hope versus hype

Many reports about stem cell successes imply that treating medical conditions requires stem cells derived from human embryos. After President Bush, in August 2001, enacted a modest limit on federal funding embryonic stem cell research, many articles were written that implied that vital research to cure disease had been stymied by a ban on stem cell research imposed by President Bush.

Such reporting is dishonest, since it presupposes that embryonic stem cell research  offers hope for cures. This, in fact, is not the case.

Furthermore, President Bush's action in August 2001 did not ban stem cell research. It only restricted federal funding to research involving embryonic stem cell lines that are already in existence, and said that federal funds would not be used to create new stem cells lines. There is no federal ban on any type of stem cell research, nor it there any federal ban on human cloning, either for research or reproduction.

Embryonic stem cell research is not new. Experiments involving embryonic stem cells — often using mouse embryos — have been going on for decades. But no cures have as yet been developed using embryonic stem cells. Not one! In fact, embryonic stem cells tend to grow wildly, resulting in uncontrolled tumors. In addition, since they come from foreign tissue, they tend to cause tissue rejection problems. Even if tumor formation can be controlled, patients receiving embryonic stem cells would likely need to take drugs to suppress their immune system, a lifelong treatment associated with serious side effects.

Despite the problems with embryonic stem cells, researchers are eager to use stem cells harvested from human embryos. Now that President Obama has reversed the Bush policy of limiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to research on currently available stem cell lines, the door is open to allow federal funding for research that involves the creation and destruction of human embryos.

New Source for “Embryonic” Stem Cells

Not all “embryonic” stem cells are obtained by killing human embryos. In November 2007, scientists announced the development of a technique for reprogramming skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. The reprogrammed cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, are able to mature into any other kind of cell in the body. This new advance may eliminate the ethical dilemma of destroying embryos for scientific research.

So far, iPSCs seem to behave exactly like embryonic stem cells derived from embryos. Like embryonic stem cells, they cause tumor formation and tissue rejection. However, they do provide a way for scientists to study the way embryonic stem cells behave — without destroying human lives in the process.

Unfortunately, the development of iPSCs has not reduced the fervor of some scientists to experiment on cells derived from the bodies of very young human beings.

The Trouble with Cloning

Embryos for research are  likely to be obtained by human cloning, a process that involves collecting human eggs from female donors. Already, newspapers on college campuses carry ads offering substantial stipends for young women to donate their eggs.

Egg donation is an invasive procedure associated with serious potential health risks. First, injections are  given to hyperstimulate the ovaries to produce an abnormally large number of eggs. Then a minor surgical procedure is performed to retrieve the eggs.

Both hyperstimulation of the ovaries and the sedation used for surgery carry health risks. In addition, the long term effect of the egg retrieval procedure has not been studied. Young women, particularly those with financial needs, are at risk for exploitation by companies seeking to profit by selling human eggs to researchers.

It is sometimes argued that cloning for the purpose of scientific research is not the same as producing human clones. In reality, the procedure is the same whether the purpose of cloning is research or reproduction.

The nucleus of the egg cell is removed and replaced with a nucleus obtained from the donor. The resulting cell is electrically stimulated to reproduce and develop into an embryo. This process is known as “somatic cell nuclear transfer” or SCNT.

An embryo produced by SCNT is identical in every way to an embryo produced by fertilization, even though no sperm is involved. If implanted in a woman’s uterus, the embryo theoretically live and grow (although this has never been done successfully). However, embryos like these are created for one purpose only—to be destroyed for scientific research.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research in Maryland

Maryland has no laws regulating cloning or embryonic stem cell research. Right now, it is not illegal for researchers to destroy human embryos obtained through in vitro fertilization, to clone human embryos for research, or even to attempt to implant cloned embryos.

Since 2005, Maryland has been funding stem cell research through the Maryland Stem Cell Research Commission. Both embryonic and non-embryonic stem cell research projects have received Maryland grants.

Facts About Stem Cell Research

Maryland Right to Life supports stem cell research! We support the rightful use of science and technology to develop effective treatments and cures for the diseases and conditions that affect humankind. However, we object to treating some human lives as commodities that may be destroyed for the supposed good of others.

Research on human embryos is morally abhorrent. It is the moral equivalent of doing deadly experiments on condemned prisoners or terminally ill patients with the justification that “they’re going to die anyway, so why not benefit from their deaths?”

Embryonic stem cell research inevitably requires cloning. The number of frozen embryos available for research from in vitro fertilization is not adequate to meet the demands of research. To meet the need, scientists are able to create human embryos through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) — a process identical to that used for cloning, except that embryos are destroyed after four or five days of development to retrieve their stem cells. This process is legal and sanctioned by the government.

Embryonic stem cells have produced NO cures or treatments. Years of research involving embryonic stem cells have not produced a single clinical success. However, embryonic stem cells have been shown to produce tumors in animals.

Embryonic stem cells may be generated without destroying human embryos. In 2007, two teams of scientists, working separately, developed a technique for reprogramming adult cells to create embryonic stem cells. The reprogrammed cells, called “induced pluripotent stem cells (or iPS cells) have the exact same characteristics as embryonic stem cells (including the tendency to product tumors). Induced pluripotent cells may actually be better for research and clinical therapies, because they can be made from the patient’s own cells and therefore may not cause tissue rejection.

Non-embryonic stem cells are curing patients now! Adult stem cells—which may be harvested from placenta or umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, human bone marrow or fat tissue, and other sources throughout the human body—been successfully used to treat more than 70 diseases or conditions. Numerous clinical trials involving adult stem cells are currently underway.

Adult stem cells are superior to embryonic stem cells. They do not cause tumors. They may be taken from the patient’s own tissue in some cases, and so would not cause tissue rejection. They are widely and readily available, and they pose no moral or ethical problems. They are already benefiting patients, and they do not destroy human life.

To learn more, visit www.stemcellresearch.org or subscribe to the Stem Cell Research Report, a bimonthly digest of recent stem cell news.

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Facts About Stem Cell Research

Maryland Right to Life • 420 Chinquapin Round Rd., Suite 2-I • Annapolis, MD 21401 • 410-269-6397 • 301-858-8304• www.mdrtl.org