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Kyle Orwig  

What's really at stake in stem-cell research?

by Kyle Orwig, '90

I began a recent Whitworth lecture on stem-cell research with the following quote from former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts." As with the lecture, my goal in this column is to provide a solid, factual foundation of what is at stake in stem-cell research so that people can make informed judgments on the issue.

Research on stem cells is intensely debated because of their potential for treating crippling conditions such as diabetes, Parkinson's and heart disease, but also due to ethical and religious concerns. My lab at the Pittsburgh Development Center in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is doing research on stem cells in the testes that shows promise for restoring fertility to patients whose ability to produce sperm has been compromised by chemotherapy or radiation treatment of cancer.

Testis stem cells can be obtained with the informed consent of the patient and, thus, are not ethically constrained. However, these adult-tissue stem cells are limited because they can only produce the tissue from which they were obtained (e.g., testis stem cells can only produce sperm). Embryonic stem cells have the capacity to differentiate into any tissue, but harvesting these cells results in the destruction of a human embryo.

The ethical dilemma rests on whether these 5- to 7-day-old embryos enjoy all the rights and protections of human beings. Religious guidance is all over the map. The Catholic Church views life as beginning at the moment of conception and regards embryonic stem-cell research as immoral, while Reform Judaism argues it would be immoral to cut off research that could lead to life-saving medical treatment. The Presbyterian Church (USA), of particular interest to Whitworthians, supports embryonic stem-cell research as long as the goals are compelling and unreachable by other means.

In his Aug. 9, 2001, address announcing a ban on federal funding for new embryonic stem-cell lines, President George Bush aligned himself with the Catholic Church and other evangelical Christian groups, but affirmed that the research has important biomedical implications and should go forward, with federal funding, on the stem-cell lines already in existence.

Unfortunately, of the 78 stem-cell lines in existence in August of 2001, only 22 are available today for research, and their viability is diminishing. Meanwhile, thousands of embryos are destroyed each year in fertility clinics. Is their current fate more noble than their potential for treating devastating human diseases?
Ironically, while the federal government has decided to limit funding for human embryonic stem-cell research, it has also failed to regulate the research. The National Academy of Sciences has developed sound research guidelines but has no real enforcement power, and a patchwork of funding and regulations has emerged in individual states to fill the void. Alternative sources of stem cells include adult tissues or genetically engineered non-viable embryos, but these approaches present their own scientific and ethical challenges. Looking forward, I hope the federal government adopts policies that both fund and regulate responsible research of embryonic and other stem cells, while maintaining sensitivity to the ethical and social implications of their use.

This is a complex issue, and reasonable people can disagree; but I believe moral perceptions are sharpened by experience and knowledge. And at this point, we don't know what we don't know.

To read a paper by Whitworth professors Don Calbreath (chemistry) and Adrian Teo (psychology) challenging embryonic stem-cell research, click here.

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