Stem Cell Research: A Scientific and Political Issue

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Moral issues in society about using embryos.

The field of regenerative medicine and stem cell biology is one of the hottest areas in contemporary science

The illumination of the human genome has opened the door to a vast range of medical therapies. The promise of drugs and interventions tuned to the individual patient's genetics holds persuasive advantage over the one-size-fits-all generic remedies we count on today. Further progress in this booming field of molecular medicine, however, relies in part on continuing stem cell research using human embryos. Although the cells themselves are microscopic, their use in medical research has become one of the biggest current moral issues in society.

Stem cell research has become a hot issue both the scientific and political arenas. "The field of regenerative medicine and stem cell biology is one of the hottest areas in contemporary science," said Stephen L. Minger (a stem cell researcher at the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases at King's College, London) in an interview with Vision Magazine.

The political heat is very evident in Missouri where a proposition on embryonic stem cell research is on the ballot. Actor Michael J. Fox is prominently featured in ads arguing for embryonic stem cell research that he hopes will someday help cure his Parkinson's disease. The video, posted on YouTube, has been seen by millions of viewers, fuelling the discussion of the benefits and risks.

Successful genetic interventions are becoming increasingly common. In early 2006 two patients with inherited immunodeficiency (a kind of bubble-boy syndrome) were successfully treated using their own blood stem cells, which had undergone genetic engineering to replace the defective gene. Such cell-based cures give great hope to those suffering from other degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes and Parkinson's.

Although increasing numbers of trials are being undertaken and researchers are optimistic, a problem remains: even when successful, researchers often remain in the dark as to the biochemical and genetic mechanisms that are actually coming into play.

Just as the Human Genome Project was just the starting place for many new fields of investigation, research using embryonic stem cells is also likely to expand. But while DNA is not in short supply, human embryos are. It is the further production and use of human embryos for scientific research that concerns many. Even researchers who find no moral difficulty using them as source material for stem cells—whether those embryos are "leftovers" from fertility clinics or newly created in the lab seems to make little difference—are quick to admit to the need for oversight.

Stanford bioethicist William Hurlbut, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, is pushing hard for a rethinking of scientific (or what he calls "instrumental") use of human embryos. "At this early stage in our technological control of developing life, we have an opportunity to break the impasse over stem cell research and provide moral guidance for the biotechnology of the future," said Hurlbut in an interview with Vision Magazine.

As we move ever closer toward realizing the medical potential of stem cell research there will continue to be moral and ethical conflicts in both the scientific and political fraternity. Sometimes it is the smallest steps along the path that require our closest attention.

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Edwin Stepp
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