Somewhere in political din dwells a promise
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A "stem" cell is just a cell that hasn't decided.
It's not a muscle cell. It's not a nerve cell. It's not a skin cell.
A stem cell has kept its options open, like a college kid without a major.
All of us, early on, were just little bunches of stem cells. Then the blueprints kicked in. Our cells turned themselves into legs and arms, bones and muscles, innards and eyeballs.
Which leads to a question:
How does each cell know its job?
After all, every cell contains the full array of human genes. How do they get their individual marching orders?
That's the promise of stem cell research. If we figure out the marching orders, maybe we can issue new ones. Maybe we can repair things in our brains and bodies that now are irreparable. This especially applies to damage from "neuro-degenerative" diseases such as Alzheimer's, or Parkinson's.
Who knows what else we could do? Maybe we could solve our organ shortages by growing 'em. We could tell tumor cells to knock off the funny stuff and get outta there. We could tell fat cells to get a new job.
But here is the political and moral dilemma.
A lot of the stem cells used in current research come from human embryos -- mostly fertilized, but unused, eggs from fertility clinics.
For those who believe that human life begins at conception, this is an ethical problem. Even if the embryos are "extras" that would never be implanted, they still represent human life. Who are we, opponents say, to declare them to be mere spare parts?
President Bush is now trying to decide whether to allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. He is said to be genuinely agonizing over it.
In the meantime, the political debate is rising in Congress. It does not mirror the battle lines of the abortion debate. Stem cell research is supported by some leading conservatives, such as U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, and our own former Sen. Connie Mack.
There are other sources of stem cells beside embryos. One source is stored umbilical-cord blood. Another is the adult body, which continues to produce stem cells here and there. Aren't these stem cells enough? Many scientists answer that we simply don't know yet -- it would be foolish to shut the door too early.
In case you are wondering, okay, Mr. Smarty Pants, how do you know anything about this, it's because of the kind indulgence of Drs. Paul Sanberg and Juan Sanchez-Ramos of the University of South Florida, two of a handful of stem cell researchers at the school. They are not using human embryonic stem cells, for a variety of practical reasons, including that part of their research support comes from an umbilical-cord blood company.
"Can this be abused? Absolutely," Sanchez-Ramos told me. "Just like fire can be abused, or atomic energy can be abused." He says that the way to proceed is in the open, with a public discussion of ethics and morality that guides research. He eagerly supports the formation of an institute or center for stem cell research at USF.
A blanket ban on a particular kind of research, Sanchez-Ramos argued, would be akin to the Renaissance-era ban on using cadavers for study -- a ban that, fortunately for all of us, was violated by generations of anatomists from Leonardo da Vinci on down.
Each of us has a personal morality. Mine says that these are groups of cells, not even "potential" human beings. Nature oversupplies us with fertilized eggs in the first place, for exactly the reason that only a few of them "take." Nature also has given us the curiosity and the smarts to figure out our world. This is not a slippery ethical slope, but a set of stairs we can take one at a time, keeping our balance.
- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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