Buyer's Guide to Stem Cells



1.Politics and potential

2.Meet the stem cells

3.Troublesome treatment

4.Treating Parkinson's?


Click here to see an illustrated explanation of how embryonic stem cells are cultivated.





Human embryonic stem cells grown at the University of Wisconsin-Madison randomly changed into cell types found in the
A) gut
B) brain
C) bone marrow
D) cartilage
E) muscle
F) kidney
Scientists haven't learned to control the development.
©1998 Science. Courtesy University Communications



Setting them stem cells free
Wearing a gray jacket, Reno smiles, looking left.
Former Attorney General Janet Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a movement disease, in 1995. Stem cells may offer hope -- if research can be done.
Courtesy HHS
POSTED MAR 1 2001 On March 15, the federal government plans to announce its first grants for studying human embryonic stem cells, which can form almost any type of human cell. In theory, stem cells could treat or even cure many gruesome diseases.

But even before the cash spigot opens, the government may close it -- or even try to limit research on human embryonic stem cells, the more promising and controversial type of stem cell. The stakes are huge. Stem cells can transform themselves into literally any cell in the body. They could be more important to medicine than impact wrenches to a grease monkey.

Once controlled and fathomed, stem cells could make drugs seem as antiquated as horseless carriages.

Here's the revolutionary idea in its simplest terms: Today's medicine tries to support or treat injured tissues and organs. Stem cells might simply replace them. Rather than giving insulin to diabetics, we'd give them new cells to make insulin as needed.

To get more mileage from our motor metaphor, we would quit fixing leaky fuel-pump gaskets and simply bolt down a shiny new pump.

While most uses of stem cells are highly experimental, they are already used in cancer treatment. After tumors and the patient's bone marrow are both killed by anti-cancer drugs, blood stem cells are squirted into the marrow, where they get a long-term lease and make the whole shmear of blood-cell types.

Can't do research into can-do cells
Six cell types, shown in monotoneResearchers say stem cells are do-all wonders with astonishing potential for reversing heart disease, diabetes, stroke, spinal-cord injury, even Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

We are talking major, menacing diseases that kill and disable millions of people each year. Some of these diseases can be prevented or treated. None can be cured.

But before you buy 100 shares of a stem cell conglomerate, remember that these uses remain theoretical. Beyond the ticklish biological problems, research in the United States has confronted a political and ethical quagmire.

To some people, taking stem cells from a fetus or embryo amounts to unethical exploitation of human life, and healing one life does not justify destroying another. "We have called on the new administration to make absolutely sure that no destructive stem cell research on embryos is done in this country, regardless of the source of funding," Judie Brown, president of the American Life League, told The New York Times (see "Transition in Washington..." in the bibliography).

During his campaign, George W. Bush said he opposed federal financing of "experimentation on embryonic stem cells that require live human embryos to be discarded or destroyed."

No research = no cure...
Stem cells -- unlimited potential or unethical practice?Patients with grave diseases and disabilities beg to differ. U.S. News & World Report quoted paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve as demanding, "Is it more ethical for a woman to donate unused embryos that will never become human beings, or to let them be tossed away as garbage when they could help save thousands of lives?" (see "Miracle Cells?..." in the bibliography).

In late February, 80 Nobel prize-winners wrote the President to support stem cell research.

In 1995, Congress banned federal funding for destructive research into human embryos -- the source of the most promising type of stem cells. Last fall, the National Institute of Health issued guidelines allowing funding of research on cells from embryos that otherwise would be discarded. Those guidelines are under review by the Bush Administration, whose Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, supported stem-cell research while governor of Wisconsin.

The ethical, political and scientific debates hinge on two distinctions.
First, the flavor of stem cell:

Embryonic or


Second, the source of the cells:

Fetal tissue

Human embryos or

Cells from an adult.

Despite the federal restrictions, exciting news about these versatile cells continues to roll down the road. Scientists recently announced that blood stem cells, a type of adult stem cell, form cells that look suspiciously like neurons -- brain cells. And on Feb. 24, Reuters reported that California scientists had used human stem cells to create human neurons in mouse brains.

What is the potential of the two flavors of stem cells? How could they help treat one particularly nasty brain disease?

Stem the tide! Here's The Why Files Guide to Stem Cells!




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