Stem cells can be found in almost every multicellular living organism on the planet.
It plays a crucial and irreplaceable part in our growth from embryonic development to adulthood.
Stem cells are classified as undifferentiated cells, one that has yet to evolve or be assigned to a specific function by the host body.
A stem cell would continue to divide, through the process of mitosis, until it eventually matures into a differentiated cell, which would either be committed as a building block for the hosts, or used in a regenerative function.
There are various terms are used to classify different types of human stem cells. However, the three most common ones are:
(i) Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells are ordinarily obtained from tissues harvested from the epithelial layer (blastoderm) and fluid-filled cavity (blastocoel) of the blastula during the blastocyst stage of a fetal development period, usually four to six days after fertilization. Primarily sourced from in vitro fertilized embryos.
(ii) Somatic Stem Cells
Somatic cells are harvested from adult human tissues with active regenerative cycles, such as skin, lining of the small intestine, blood vessels, liver, brain and bone marrow.
(iii) Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS cells)
iPS cells are created by reprogramming ordinary cells using RNA virus. These cells undergo gradual changes that strip them of their original cellular memories and eventually mimic the malleable characteristics of embryonic stem cells. iPS production remains an unstable process and regularly produces unforeseen attributes.
All three sources of stem cells offer differing growth and maturity characteristics, which influence their potential usage. However, embryonic stem cells are regarded as the superior of the three.
Scientists have been aware of stem cells and the potential it offers for almost four decades, but the first real breakthrough only came in 1998, when a team lead by Dr. James Thompson from the University of Wisconsin discovered a method to isolate and propagate the cells from human embryos. Despite the huge potential behind stem cell technology, Dr. Thompson’s breakthrough raises serious moral questions over the use of human embryos to harvest stem cells.
Difficult questions, such as the right of the embryo or of its legal status as a person - ordinarily heard in any debate involving the issue of abortion – became a hot topic of discussion. Does the potential benefit of this technology to humanity justifies the ‘farming’ and post-harvesting destruction of these embryos? The discovery of undifferentiated somatic stem cells, and more recently, iPS cells, have lessened the demand for embryonic stem cells, but it still remains the most sought after for its simpler properties and more expansive development potential.
But why is there such excitement over the stem cell technology?
The science of stem cell technology offers the opportunity to understand the biological and chemical mechanics of human development, which in turn will offer an understanding of how diseases develop and of the methods required to suppress them. It also presents an opportunity for the advancement of the still new field of regenerative medicine - for cell, tissues, limbs and organs.
Mastery of these stem cell technologies will revolutionize modern medicine. Diseases (such as cancer, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis), limbic defects (birth or accident) and damaged organs would all be curable. We can grow what is needed, and prevent what isn’t. Even Oscar Goldman's famous line, "We can rebuild him...we have the technology,"no longer seem as far-fetched.
Nevertheless, full mastery of stem cell technology remains decades away. Hurdles are aplenty, and there are huge gaps in our knowledge. But there have been some practical, life-saving even, application of stem cell technology. According to the National Marrow Donor Program, hematopoietic stem cells (blood forming cells) from the bone marrow and umbilical cord blood are used in an estimated 50,000 hematopoietic cell transplants annually worldwide to treat patients with life-threatening malignant and non-malignant diseases such as,
• Leukemias and lymphomas
• Severe aplastic anemia and other marrow failure states
• SCID and other inherited immune system disorders
• Hurler's syndrome and other inherited metabolic disorders
• Familial erythrophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis and other histiocytic disorders
Stem cell research has seen its potential for progress being curtailed drastically by a myriad of political, religious and ethical issues - and there is even opposition from within the medical community itself. In 2001, former President Bush limited federal funding of stem cell research to 21 non-embryonic stem cell lines - a limitation which was revoked by President Obama in 2009, expanding the cell lines for federally funded research. The debate does not appear to be reaching a conclusion anytime soon, and serves as yet another divisive political tool.
President Obama signed an executive order (Executive Order 13505 - Removing Barriers to Responsible
Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells) on March 9, 2009, to reverse former President
Bush’s August 2001 order, which limits research to 21 stem cell lines (NIH Stem Cell Registry
currently has 135 eligible lines) and a blanket ban federal funding for embryonic stem cell
research. The new order, however, does not lift the ban on funding for research on developing new
lines of stem cells. The executive order charges the National Institute of Health to formulate
revised guidelines on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research within 120 days, which it
subsequently issued on July 7, 2009.
Obama’s decision found unlikely support from Nancy Reagan, who released the following
“I'm very grateful that President Obama has lifted the restrictions on federal
funding for embryonic stem cell research. These new rules will now make it possible for scientists
to move forward. I urge researchers to make use of the opportunities that are available to them, and
to do all they can to fulfill the promise that stem cell research offers. Countless people,
suffering from many different diseases, stand to benefit from the answers stem cell research can
provide. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to do everything in our power to find cures for
these diseases - and soon. As I've said before, time is short, and life is
However, the new NIH Guidelines was challenged by the Law of Life Project legal
team (Dr. James L. Sherley, Dr. Theresa Deisher, Christian Medical Association, Alliance Defense
Fund, Nightlight Christian Adoptions and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher) and a complaint was subsequently
filed in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia stating that the guidelines
violated the 1995 Dickey-Wicker Amendment which states,
(a) None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for--
(1) the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research purposes; or
(2) research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to
risk of injury or death greater than that allowed for research on fetuses in utero under 45 CFR
46.204(b) and section 498(b) of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 289g(b)).
(b) For purposes of this section, the term `human embryo or embryos' includes any organism, not
protected as a human subject under 45 CFR 46 as of the date of the enactment of this Act, that is
derived by fertilization, parthenogenesis, cloning, or any other means from one or more human
gametes or human diploid cells.
Federal District Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled in favor of
the plaintiffs on August 23, 2010 and granted a preliminary injunction halting all federal funding
for embryonic stem cell research while he deliberate on the matter. In his ruling, Judge Royce noted
“Despite defendants' attempt to separate the derivation of ESCs (embryonic stem
cells) from research on the ESCs, the two cannot be separated. Derivation of ESCs from an embryo is
an integral step in conducting ESC research… Simply because ESC research involves multiple steps
does not mean that each step is a separate 'piece of research' that may be federally funded,
provided the step does not result in the destruction of an embryo. If one step or 'piece of
research' of an ESC research project results in the destruction of an embryo, the entire project is
precluded from receiving federal funding by the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.”
effectively paints all federally sponsored research from 1996, amounting to approximately $546
million, as violating the Dicky-Wicker Amendment. However, a follow up suit by the plaintiffs in
July 2010 that sought to permanently ban federal funding for embryonic stem cell therapy were thrown
out by Chief Judge Lamberth. In September 2010, Chief Judge Lamberth refused a request by the
government to lift the injunction for federal funding pending his ruling.
The Justice Department filed an emergency request with the Court of Appeals for the district to
countermand Judge Lamberth’s decision, citing disruption to existing research, which began prior
to the Chief Judge’s ruling. The request was granted on September 9, 2009.
The Court of Appeals ruled again in April 2011, this time in favor of the defendants. In a 2-1
decision, Judge Douglas Ginsburg and Judge Thomas Griffith wrote a stinging commentary on Judge
Lamberth’s earlier decision to allow the preliminary injunction.
“We need not wade into
this circuit split today because, as in Davis, as detailed below, in this case a preliminary
injunction is not appropriate even under the less demanding sliding-scale analysis. We review the
district court’s balancing of the four factors for abuse of discretion…
…The Amendment, reenacted annually as a rider to appropriations legislation, prohibits the
expenditure of federal funds both for “the creation of a human embryo or embryos for research
purposes” and for “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed…
It is the latter ban that the plaintiffs' claim is violated by the 2009 Guidelines. Determining
whether hESC research is “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed” requires
determining the meaning of “research.” The plaintiffs contend that all hESC research constitutes
research in which human embryos are destroyed and that the Amendment accordingly prohibits federal
funding thereof. The Government counters that the derivation of hESCs and the subsequent use of
those cells, although both research, are not part of the same—and prohibited—research…
… the plain meaning of the Amendment is easily grasped. See id. (“If the [statute] has a plain
and unambiguous meaning, our inquiry ends so long as the resulting statutory scheme is coherent and
consistent.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). Accordingly, “that is the end of the matter;
for the court, as well as the agency, must give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of
Congress.” Chevron, 467 U.S. at 842-43.
Because the plaintiffs have not shown they are likely to succeed on the merits, we conclude they are
not entitled to preliminary injunctive relief. We reach this conclusion under the sliding scale
approach to the preliminary injunction factors; a fortiori we would reach the same conclusion if
likelihood of success on the merits is an independent requirement. Therefore, the preliminary
injunction entered by the district court must be and is Vacated”
Chief Judge Lamberth also
ruled in favor of the defendant shortly thereafter, citing the ruling of the Court of Appeals as the
basis of his judgment. The matter remains far from settled, however, as the plaintiffs have
indicated that they might bring the case to the Supreme Court.
“Today with the executive order I’m about to sign, we would bring the change that so many
scientists, and researchers, doctors and innovators, patients and loved ones that hope for and
fought for these past eight years. We will lift the ban on federal funding for promising embryonic
stem cell research.
We also vigorously support scientists who pursue this
research. And we will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield. At
this moment, the full promise of stem cell research remains unknown and it should not be overstate.
But scientists believe these tiny cells may have the potential to help us understand and possibly
cure some of our most devastating diseases and conditions. To regenerate a severed spinal cord and
lift someone from a wheelchair. To spur insulin production and spare a child from a lifetime of
needles. To treat Parkinson’s, cancer, heart disease and others that affect millions of Americans
and the people who love them. But that potential would not reveal themselves on its own. Medical
miracles do not happen simply by accident. They result from painstaking and costly research, from
years of lonely trial and errors, much of which never bears fruit. And from a government willing to
support that work. From live saving vaccines to pioneering cancer treatments to the sequencing of
the human genome – that is the story of scientific progress in America.
When government fail to make these investments, opportunities are missed. Promising avenues goes
unexplored. Some of our best scientists leave for other countries that will sponsor their work, and
those countries may surge ahead of ours in the advances that transform our lives.
As a person of faith, I believe we are called to care for each other and work to ease human
suffering. I believe we have been given the capacity and will to pursue this research and the
humanity and conscience to do so responsibly. It’s a difficult and delicate balance and many
thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about or strongly oppose this research. And I understand
their concerns, and I believe we must respect their point of view. But after much discussion, debate
and reflection, the proper course has become clear. The majority of Americans from across the
political spectrum and from all background and beliefs have come to a consensus that we should
pursue this research. That the potential it offers is great, and with proper guidelines and strict
oversight, the perils can be avoided. That is a conclusion with which I agree. And that is why I am
signing this executive order. And why I hope Congress will act on a bipartisan basis to provide
further support for this research.”
March 9, 2011; President Obama announces the signing of
Executive Order 13505 - Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem