Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Stem cells are the newest "hot" topic in biological research. Very few other ongoing areas of research have been the focus of numerous articles, Presidential and Congressional scrutiny, and numerous ethical debates played out in the national media. This ongoing focus on stem cells is due in part to their amazing potential and in part to the controversial nature of one type of stem cell—the embryonic stem cell. The key question that is being dealt with is the issue of Federal funding for research with embryonic stem cells; the underlying issues of this simple question cause strong opinions and necessitate serious ethical considerations.
This study is intended to shape a personal position on the subject of Federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and a critique of the current status of such funding. However, outlining a position on this subject requires a background on all types of stem cells. In particular, some idea of the nature of various types of stem cells and the potential and realized uses of stem cells is necessary. Before outlining a personal position, an overview of the spectrum of positions and the evolution of the stem cell debate will also be required. Thus, the majority of this paper will outline the nature of stem cells, a history of the ongoing embryonic stem cell debate, and current policy regarding stem cell research. My personal position will then be juxtaposed alongside supporting and opposing opinions on the matter of Federal funding of embryonic stem cells.
Background: What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are a pluripotent cell type, able to differentiate into multiple cell types. There are many kinds of stem cells in the human body, though some are more differentiated to a particular function than others. Thus the term stem cell "commonly is used to refer to the cells within the adult organism that renew tissue."1 First isolated in 1997 by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions,2 the embryonic stem cell is a fairly recent addition to the list stem cell types. Embryonic stem cells are unlike any adult stem cell. They are only found naturally in the early stages of embryonic development and are totipotent—i.e. they can form ANY type of adult cell or adult cell precursor. Another type of stem cell which has properties similar to the embryonic stem cell is the embryonic germ cell, derived from the primordial reproductive cells of the developing fetus. Too often stem cells are lumped together into one category. However, all stem cells do not share common characteristics or sources and it is important to distinguish between various types of stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells can be derived by a number of methods.1
Human embryos created by invitro-fertilization as a method for overcoming infertility that are later donated by couples that no longer had plans to use the embryos. (Embryonic Stem Cells)
Human fetal tissue following elective abortion. (Embryonic Germ...