Stem Cell Basics

by Robert Cielnicky, President of Scholl Institute of Bioethics

The following was compiled from the National Institute of Health website and elsewhere with annotations added by the author.

A human being comes into existence at the moment the sperm fuses with the ovum. From then until the eighth week it is termed an embryo. That single-cell embryo, also called a zygote, has been deemed the most complex cell under the face of the sun for it contains all the information and programming necessary to produce who you physically are today.

The zygote begins to divide and differentiate (specialize) into cells, which in 3 to 5 days separate into two regions of the embryo, now called a blastocyst. The exterior cells or “shell” of the blastocyst will create the placenta. The cells within the blastocyst will eventually create a complete human being having heart, lungs, brain, and all other bodily tissues, fluids and organs.

The zygote and its replicated cells are termed totipotent stem cells, being able to give rise to every cell type necessary to produce a new human being, including its in-utero support system (placenta). The blastocyst internal cells are termed pluripotent stem cells giving rise to every cell of the human body, but not the placenta. By the 6th day, the blastocyst internal pluripotent stem cells are differentiating into specialized cells that will form the various systems of the human body. These are termed multipotent stem cells since although now on specific development paths, they can still further differentiate to form various components of a major body system. Multipotent stem cells are also found among tissues and organs of children and adults and are commonly termed “adult” or “somatic” (body) stem cells. In this capacity, they serve as an internal repair system, differentiating and dividing without limit to regenerate specialized cells that have been damaged or expired.

Stem cells are distinguished from other cell types by three major differences. 1) They are able to proliferate themselves through many successive cell divisions, sometimes after long periods of inactivity. 2) They are unspecialized cells. 3) They have the unique ability to differentiate themselves into specialized cells with special functions.

Adult stem cells have been used in regenerative medicine for decades and now account for almost 100 different types of therapeutic treatments. These range from long established bone-marrow transplant for recovery from the effects of leukemia to the most recent clinical trials in which cardiac stem cells showed positive results in repairing severely damaged hearts.

In 1998, a method was discovered to derive stem cells from human embryos and grow the cells in the laboratory. Despite billions of dollars in state and federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) spanning more than a decade, it has not produced any regenerative treatment. Much more damaging, the extraction of embryonic stem cells from the embryo destroys it and thus kills a human being, making embryonic stem cell research an immoral pursuit. Conversely, harvesting adult stem cells does not kill the donor and is not immoral.

In 2006, researchers made a major breakthrough by identifying conditions that would allow some specialized adult cells to be “reprogrammed” genetically to assume an embryonic stem cell-like state. This new type of stem cell is called an induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) and without having come from an embryo, it eliminates the immorality of embryonic stem cell research.

The existing alternatives to embryonic stem cell research and its dismal record should suffice to end its taxpayer funding.

Another Embryonic Stem Cell Initiative for California?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Shortly after its passage in 2004 by voters clinging to hope and hype, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act (Proposition 71) was challenged in court for violation of established public oversight procedures. Prop 71 was advanced by its proponents as an amendment to California’s State Constitution, thus bypassing the legislative process of deliberation, debate, and representative voting. It also made itself immune to several time-proven procedures that assure accountability for public fund expenditures by creating its own regulations and amending existing government codes. The court challenge was rebuffed and the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), created by Prop 71, was off and running at $1 million a day for the next 10 years.

The public investment of $3 billion ($6 billion taxpayer cost) solely for human embryonic stem cell research was astounding. It was twice all the money spent by the University of California in all its research facilities over the previous 25 years. Equally astounding was that Prop 71 proponents spent a comparatively modest $30 million to stir public passion and lasso a $3 billion cash cow. That’s a return of a dollar per penny on a venture rejected by private investors.

At the time of Prop 71, ESCR had produced tumors, bodily rejection, and a potential for lawsuits, but no cures. Meanwhile, adult and cord blood stem cells were approaching 100 therapeutic cures. In the free market, ESCR was going nowhere while adult stem cell research was thriving. A public stampeded by emotional marketing was needed for ESCR funding, and that is what Prop 71 provided.

Fast forward to 2011. What has Prop 71 produced for $1.2 billion thus far? The CIRM has funded awards of $270 million for 12 new buildings, $72 million for ESCR training programs, $816 million for research on all types of stem cells, and generous CIRM salaries (at $490,000 annually its president is the highest salaried non-academician in California), but not one therapeutic cure.

Characteristically, cures remain ‘just over the horizon’. In 2004, Prop 71 proponent and ESCR scientist Hans Keirstead predicted that in 2006 there would be a clinical study involving humans with spinal cord injuries. Geron, a major biomedical corporation and ESCR advocate, launched the first such clinical trial in 2010. Geron announced in October 2011 that the primary test objective of safety had been met with its first patient. There was no report on the effectiveness of the treatment. In November, Geron stunned the ESCR community when it announced it had cancelled the clinical trials and terminated its entire embryonic stem cell program. No reason was given. Geron had posted company losses for the past 3 quarters. It will return money from a $25 million loan made by the CIRM last May.

Before considering any extension of CIRM funding, California voters would do well to examine and compare the CIRM with a host of ethical and successful adult stem cell programs underway across America.

For more information visit CIRMAdult Stem Cell Research Network; and California Stem Cell Report.

From the January 2012 issue of the Bioethics Review. The Scholl Institute of Bioethics is a nonprofit, Judeo-Christian organization that addresses bioethical issues including euthanasia, physician-assisted-suicide, the withholding or withdrawing of food and water from non-dying patients, brain death, organ transplantation, genetic engineering, and the rights of disabled or mentally ill persons.

Scholl Institute of Bioethics stands against using human embryonic stem cells for experimentation since these cells emanate from the killing of a human being. This immoral research should be prohibited and never paid for by our taxes. Moral and better alternatives are available.

Contact the Scholl Institute of Bioethics
18030 Brookhurst PMB 372, Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Email: [email protected]
Telephone 626-574-7123

Also see Crusade for Life website.

© 2012
Used by Permission

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