Genocide or miracle? Baby or stem cells? Life or death?
The doors to the stem cell debate opened this week with a Pro-Life Club demonstration on campus Mon., March 19 and Tues., March 20 and the faculty of medicine student-organized stem cell symposium Fri., March 23.
For many researchers, stem cells hold immense promise in areas including drug testing, development of cancer therapies and cell-based therapies for ailments such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, kidney failure, heart disease and spinal cord injury. Stem cells are unique because of their ability to develop into many different kinds of tissues--a property that allows researchers to literally grow organs and tissues as replacements for patients who suffer from degenerative diseases or even cancer.
"Stem cell research is paving the road for what is called regenerative medicine to enter the clinic," said University of Ottawa professor Dr. Michael Rudnicki, scientific director of the Stem Cell Network and professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine. "Regenerative medicine in-volves harnessing the power of stem cells both within our body by transplanting stem cells and using drugs to modify the function of stem cells to stimulate the body's ability for regeneration."
But excitement over stem cells is not without controversy.
The source of cells is perhaps the most widely debated ethical issue in stem cell research. Presently, stem cells with different properties can be obtained from either embryonic or adult sources.
Embryo-derived stem cells can replicate indefinitely without aging or mutating, they can differentiate into a wide range of tissue types and larger numbers of them can be obtained. In the process of harvesting these cells, however, the embryo is inevitably killed. On the other hand, using adult stem cells can avoid ethical and moral issues of sourcing, but it is harder to procure large numbers of them. Adult stem cells are also less versatile than embryonic cells when it comes to differentiation.
"We're dealing with a human life here, even in its earliest stages, and when you can make that case, then you can talk about embryonic stem cell research in light of the embryo as a human being," said University of Calgary Pro-Life Club president Matthew Wilson. "It changes things radically, because when you have to think about it as a human being we have to treat it with dignity and rightsÂ--most importantly, the right to life."
Although some opponents of embryonic stem cell research point to adult stem cells as a viable compromise, Rudnicki pointed out that both types of stem cells have advantages and disadvantages.
"I don't think it's either-or," he said. "Both types of stem cells have different applications for different therapies. We need to study and understand how stem cells work in general and that includes all types of stem cells."
Adult stem cells, which are found in bone marrow and circulating in blood, have been used for more than 30 years to treat various types of cancer, including leukemias, as well as blood disorders.
Embryonic stem cell research is still in the pre-clinical phase and has not yet been shown to work in people, according to U of C professor of cell biology, anatomy, pharmacology and therapeutics Dr. Samuel Weiss.
Weiss noted some people are afraid of the use of stem cells, especially if researchers put stem cells into animals, which then adopt genetically-human properties. Some also fear stem cells' apparent ability to divide uncontrollably, much like cancer.
"I think all of these concerns--from the ethical concerns, to the chimeras, to the cancer--these are all legitimate concerns," said Weiss. "I mean, we need to conduct our research carefully, we need to communicate our findings effectively, and we need to allow the community to be an active participant in the dialogue about the usefulness and the ethics and the applicability of stem cells."
"There's a lot of hope for embryonic stem cells and I think that they may in fact be very useful, but we're not sure yet," he said. "And that's why I'm saying that the debate may be premature. One [thing] that's clear is that we shouldn't block the research."