Embryonic stem cells are now a very hot topic in research. They have the ability to turn into almost any other cell in the body once exposed to certain chemical triggers. Although your body no longer contains embryonic stem cells after birth, the injection of these cells into various parts of the body causes them to differentiate into copies of neighboring cells. This can be used to help regenerate cells that the body doesn’t reproduce by itself.
However, the research is encumbered by controversy. Much of the strife arises from the cells’ origin – the main source of stem cells is unborn embryos. These embryos either come from abortions, donations or extra embryos from in-vitro fertilization. Some religious organizations have tried, and for the most part succeeded, in blocking stem cell research because they feel that research with stem cells exploits a potential human life.
Stem cell research, however, is far too important to let religious arguments impede its progress. The embryos being used to create new stem cell lines would have otherwise been discarded, so it’s not like embryos are explicitly bred to become stem cells.
Far from just being a concept in a lab, stem cell research has already produced many fruitful results. Researchers at the Chosun University in Korea transplanted stem cells into a woman with a spinal cord injury. By using stem cells, the researchers avoided immune system rejections – a problem which plagues many transplant operations – and claim the woman is now able to walk.
At our own university, Dr. Steven Goldman is doing research into using stem cells to stop Huntington’s disease, which is a fatal neurological disease with no cure. Goldman’s work is partially based upon using stem cells to produce myelin, the fatty substance which surrounds cells and helps them propagate signals throughout the body. I would think that the benefit of breakthroughs like this far outweigh any religious stigmas attached. Stem cell research has the ability to help many people, so I cannot see any reason not to pursue it.
Another reason why continuing stem cell research is so important is to help slow the recent “brain drain” seen in science as fewer Americans go into research after graduating.
If the U.S. does not start making a serious commitment to stem cell research, we are at risk of losing even more of our top minds to other countries where they have the government supporting their research instead of impeding it.
Stem cells are and will continue to become a very important part of medical research. We, as a university and even more so as a country, must support stem cell research. The horse is already out of the gate – attempting to close it wont accomplish anything.
Freidman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.