The Stem Cell Controversy

By Peter Dodzik, Psy.D., Managing Editor

In the wake of continued research on new medications and surgical procedures for treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, I have found that many of my patients are wondering whether anyone is any closer to cures for these and other debilitating illnesses. I get asked 1-2 times per week about potential inoculations for dementia or the benefits of herbal supplements. But, the most frequently asked question is about stem cells.

Stem cell research is everywhere. For those of you who are not familiar with stem cells, these are cells that are genetically naive. This means that they could theoretically become any cell in the human body from brain to liver. This characteristic offers a world of potential benefit to scientists and patients. Unfortunately, this research has also conjured up an ethical conundrum.

Many scientists have quickly discovered that embryonic stem cells offer some unique advantages over their adult counterparts. Several researchers right here in Chicago have treated rats with human embryonic stem cells and produced dramatic increases in learning and memory in aged rats. There has also been some progress in spinal cord re-growth in rats using human embryonic cells. These findings have been very encouraging compared to the somewhat mixed results when using adult stem cells.

However, many researchers, politicians and lobbyists have quite correctly pointed out that harvesting embryonic and fetal stem cells from aborted fetuses or other sources could have some very negative social consequences. Imagine a private company that began to advertise to women who are considering an abortion to donate remains. Sound crazy? Some experts say no. Any substance that could potential save lives is also a product with infinite value and many people believe that without restriction, this scenario or one like it is a very real possibility. Consider this, during the Clinton administration, the U.S. government was considering federal funds for human embryonic and stem cell research. This bill would prohibit cloning of human embryos-necessary many say for ensuring an adequate supply of stem cells-and is currently set for Congressional review. Cloning brings up a tremendous fear from anti-abortion groups and poses interesting dilemmas for ethicists.

I was recently asked by some new parents about cord stem cells. They were expecting and their doctor told them that the stem cells from the umbilical cord could be harvested and stored for them in case their child should need them. They were not rich, but thought they could afford the procedure if I thought it was worth it. The father joked that if they did it, however, they may not be able to put their child through college. I realized, that at this moment I had no answer for them. Certainly research progresses continually and there is no way to predict whether this investment could save their child’s life some day. Although, we at Sleep & Health have no formal position on this issue, the questions raised by both sides cannot be ignored. What can be said is that this research is promising and will move forward. This type of research is already being conducted in the U.K., Australia and Germany. So the major question might really be “Who does the work?” Scientist from other countries will push this field even if the U.S. places fairly global bans on research and funding. Therefore, we may really be addressing the question of under what conditions will the field move forward and who will get the green light to do it?

With the population of baby-boomers headed for old age, the race for cures for many geriatric diseases will certainly get more attention.

If you have any thoughts or comments on this editorial, please send them to us, we would love to hear them.