16 - The Michigan Daily - Monday, August 15, 2005
Science, ethics grapple with stem cells
By Kingson Man
Daily Staff Reporter
It starts off simple: one cell meets another
cell. They make the preliminary introductions,
and, taking a liking to each other, they unite
and become a new cell, full of promise for the
future. The cell divides, divides again, and five
days later it is a hollow ball of 200 or so cells, a
prodigious result from its humble beginnings of
sperm and egg. Itis from there that things start to
Attached to the inside of that hollow blasto-
cyst are 30 cells that have provoked more impas-
sioned debate than arguably any other scientific
development in recent memory. In the midst of
the national conversation over these precious
embryonic stem cells, one is liable to wonder how
something so small - smaller than the period at
the end of this sentence - has come to carry so
much hope, or fuel so much outrage.
Like vaccines, birth control, or genetic engi-
neering, the march of science has yet again
forced society to confront difficult issues or
to ignore them at its own peril. In considering
the question of conducting research on human
embryonic stem cells, scientists, ethicists,
legislators, religious leaders, the afflicted and
the rest of the country see the need to reach a
decision on what it means to be a human, and
at what point something is no longer - or not
yet - human.
COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTHY
Two techniques for creating embryonic stem cells: somatic cell nuclear transfer and in-vitro sexual fertilization. The totipotent cells produced become stem cells, which thei
In every human body there are around 200 differ-
ent types of cells, all performing their own specific
functions and specially equipped to do so. T-cells cir-
culate in the blood ready to engulf microbe intruders;
neurons flash electrical signals back and forth inside
the brain to communicate with each other. These cells
do their jobs well, but age and eventually die.
A few types of cells, however, are more versa-
tile and able to transform themselves into a few
other types of cells. These so-called adult stem
cells are scattered in isolated clumps around the
body - in teeth, bone marrow, umbilical cord
blood and other locations.
Research on adult stem cells is currently one of
the areas pursued by scientists at the University. The
hope is that these adult stem cells can be coaxed to
transform reliably into the types of cells that a dis-
eased patient lacks. Controlling this differentiation is
a complex matter of balancing an equation of nutri-
ents, growth factors and environmental conditions.
Sean Morrison, an assistant professor in the
Department of Internal Medicine, has seen early suc-
cess in his work with hetnatopoietic stem cells. These
cells are found in bone marrow and eventually give
rise to all red and white blood cells.
"We just published a paper in the journal Cell,"
Morrison said. For a time, it was the most download-
ed paper on Cell's website. "This indicates we can do
stem-cell research that has an impact nationally."
Deputy General Counsel Edward Goldman said
the controversy is centered on embryonic stem cells.
"There is no ethical argument about the use of
adult stem cells. The scientific argument is that
they are not as useful as embryonic stem cells,"
It is the other variety of stem cells, those harvested
from human embryos, which offer greater scientific
promise and catch critical attention. Four or five days
after fertilization takes place, the embryo has become
a blastocyst containing about 30 embryonic stem
cells. Unlike adult stem cells, these are pluripotent,
meaning each one has the ability to become any of
the body's different types of cells.
"The benefit would be if you created a cell line,
instead of testing potentially toxic drugs in human
beings you could test them on the cells which are
identical to the patient," Goldman said. The stem
cells could also be grown into replacement organs
Scientists are able to extract embryonic stem
cells from the blastocyst and to keep them alive
in the lab. These stem cells can then give rise to
successive generations, forming a stem-cell line.
Under the right conditions, stem cells are essen-
tially immortal, given proper care.
The main issue at present is how to acquire
these immensely powerful stem cells. One con-
troversial method is somatic cell nuclear trans-
fer, or "therapeutic cloning," which transfers the
nucleus from a skin cell into an egg cell, and acti-
vates it in such a way that causes it to multiply
like an embryo. A group in South Korea recently
announced their success in using this technique
n differentiate into all the different tissues of the body.
to harvest embryonic stem cells.
Another source is from the embryos stored in
deep freeze at in-vitro fertilization clinics.
"Currently couples can contract for in-vitro
fertilization, create fertilized eggs, store them,
decide not to use them, and ask that the fertil-
ized eggs be discarded," said Goldman. Some
couples may instead opt to donate the embryos
slated for destruction to researchers.
It is from this source that 71 embryonic stem
cell lines were created before the cutoff date of
August 9, 2001. On that date, President Bush
allowed limited federal funding for the first
time to only be used for these stem-cell lines A
and none derived afterwards.
In a turnaround from his previous stance,
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.)
recently announced his support for relax-
ing federal funding restrictions on embryonic
stem-cell research, saying that of only 22 lines
remaining many were in a deteriorated state
and insufficient for research needs.
Afelon Li the lab
As the U.S. House of Representatives con-
vened to vote on HR 810 at the end of May,
passions ran high on both sides of the aisle.
Detractors of the Castle-Degette legislation that
would allow for increased funding of embryonic
stem-cell research saw it as a sanction to destroy
human life; supporters argued that these con-
cerns were misplaced and not supporting this
research would be an even graver error.
After the dust settled, the bill passed by 238
to 194, overcoming the president's threat to veto
the measure. The bill then moved on to the Sen-
ate, where it now awaits a vote after its recess
ends in September.
While the national laws on stem-cell research
await new developments, the situation in Michigan
remains as restrictive as ever. The journal Nature
reported that Michigan ranks as one of the most
restrictive states in the nation for performing stem-
cell research, placing it alongside Arkansas, North
Dakota, and South Dakota.
"At a time when this is so scientifically promis-
ing, at a time when the state of Michigan is trying
to diversify its economic base, and bioscience is
one of those areas, it justseems problematic to send
out the message that we are a state not favorably
=inclined towards this line of research," said Allen
Lichter, dean of the medical school.
Robert Kelch, executive vice president for medi-
cal affairs at the University and an outspoken advo-
cate for stem-cell research, said what is allowed in
most states is illegal in Michigan.
"The private sector can go out and fund new
stem-cell lines in other states. In Michigan it's
a felony," Ketch said.
Ketch is referring to two laws passed in
Michigan in 1999 and 1977. They prohibit
somatic cell nuclear transfer and research on
State Rep. Andy Meisner (D-Ferndale) recently
introduced an amendment in the house that would
eliminate the word "embryo" in the 1977 bill,
which was originally intended to protect fetuses
Similarly, the 1999 bill outlawed somatic
cell nuclear transfer to prohibit the creation of
a human clone.
"That law is not written as carefully as
it could have been . . . (somatic cell nuclear
transfer) could be used to create a cell line or
an artificial kidney, but all of that is banned by
the law," Goldman said.
At in-vitro fertilization clinics, embryos that
are carriers of genetic diseases are identified and
screened out from being used by the donating cou-
ple. At that point, these diseased embryos "clearly
can't be adopted, so they could be donated to make
embryonic stem-cell lines to study the diseases that
they carry. That's the sort of research that we are
being prohibited from doing," said Sue O'Shea, a
professor of cell and developmental biology in the
"I personally think the legislation is too
restrictive, and it's not helping us, that's for
sure," said Alan Saltiel, director of the Life
Sciences Institute. "We are trying to formu-
late a response to it."
Said O'Shea: "I'm better at educating than
at lobbying." .
Followihzg the money
As lawmakers trade barbs and forge com-
promises in the halls of government, Uni-
versity scientists are feeling the hurt at their
Morrison, author of the Cell paper on
hematopoietic stem cells, expresses the dif-
ficulties faced by many local researchers.
"The science is hard enough. The last thing
we need is to add on top of this all kinds
of regulatory hurdles . . . people across the
University are universally disgruntled about
the extent to which it handicaps us."
Because of the scientific techniques
declared illegal in the state, certain exper-
imental components would have to be
acquired from an outside source. "If we
decide to study breast cancer, we can't .. .
until someone in California or Boston pro-
vides us with the relevant stem cells," Mor-
Several states are jumpstarting major
efforts to raise funds to support stem-cell
research. California leads the pack with a $3
billion dollar initiative to aggressively push
the science over the next decade. New Jersey,
Wisconsin and Illinois have also earmarked
millions for the construction of dedicated
new facilities to research stem cells.
"They're recruiting vigorously all over
the country," said Kelch.
"If you're a newly minted Ph.D interested
in embryonic stem-cell research, you have a
choice of going to a state thathas a $3 bil-
lion dollar commitment or a state that has
laws prohibiting it," said Goldman.
Already, one stem cell scientist at the
University has been lured away. "Mike
Clark has already decided to go to Stanford,
and that's a loss for us and a gain for them,"
O'Shea reveals that University scientists
"get calls all the time. One guy called me
and said if I gave you five hundred thousand
dollars would you move to San Diego? It's
all pie in the sky."
O'Shea, who runs one of the first federally
funded human embryonic stem-cell research
centers in the nation, adds, "people who stay
and work for a long time in Michigan have
reasons for staying."
"People are always thinking about mov-
ing, it's just nonstop. .. Money is important
to scientists but it's not the only thing," said
Saltiel. "We have a fabulous scientific envi-
ronment, great resources, wonderful facili-
ties and a lot of intangibles."
The trouble is simply that SCNT is not
one of those intangibles.
Lichter said, "this work will get done,
the discoveries will be made, the new treat-
ments and new procedures will be created.
It's just a question of whether we want to
watch while others do this or whether we
want to take our place in the forefront."
Political hurdles are not the only things
scientists encounter, but ethical objections
from both the scientific and religious com-
munities, as well as the public.
This story continues at michigandaily.com.