This keeps on coming up.
“Why do we need to research ESCs? [embryonic stem cells] – we don’t know anything about them! They haven’t been shown to do anything useful! I don’t understand!”
That is presicely why.
The whole point of research is to discover things, develop understanding and gain knowledge that can be applied elsewhere.
When Mr. Fleming saw his bacteria dying he was annoyed, not filled with joy because he’d discovered an antibiotic. It took time to research why the bacteria were dying, how they were being killed and what that knowledge could be used for – now how many people (who aren’t allergic to it) are given penicillin?? And for that matter, just because some people are allergic to it, doesn’t mean it isn’t hugely beneficial for those that aren’t.
Yes, ESCs when used in vivo (in a whole living organism) can form teratomas (benign tumours – this means they don’t invade the surrounding tissue and spread to other areas of the body – they stay put). This does not mean they should not be studied further! No one is proposing they simply be injected randomly into people while we sit back and cross our fingers.
Cancer is a huge challenge for humans to overcome; millions of people are suffering from it directly or indirectly. There are hundreds of different kinds with cancers affecting children being generally quite different to those affecting adults.
Any information on why and how cancers form is utterly invaluable in our endeavours to treat cancer patients. Teratoma formation by ESCs is one of those reservoirs of information we have only touched on.
Cancer and cell differentiation (development of cells into those with specific functions e.g. colour-sensing eye cell, insulin-secreting pancreatic cell etc.) are intrinsically linked. Embryo –> foetus –> child is one huge process of differentiation. Different stages of the embryo also give us evolutionary insights. [What’s your first reaction to my picture below? I commandeered this plate from my colleague recently because it was fascinating]
However, the human ESCs we are interested in for ESC research (ESCR) are only available up to 7 days post-fertilisation (sperm+ovum–>zygote). After that they have differentiated, losing the ability to turn into any one of the >200 human cell types. This means that aborted embryos are useless – no one knows they are pregnant within a week of their egg being fertilised. We cannot ‘make use of’ spontaneous miscarriages that early on, no one would even notice it had happened. There is no getting pregnant and donating your embryo – it doesn’t happen, because there are no ESCs in these balls of cells. The embryos are left over from IVF; several embryos are created with the donors’ eggs and sperm, the healthiest are implanted and the rest frozen. If the donor doesn’t want them, they can donate them to research. Otherwise, their only other destination is the biological hazards waste container and the incinerator – no pregnancy is possible for these extra embryos, no ‘potential life’.
People are also often shouting “adult stem cells can cure loads of things!” – no, they help decrease the risks involved with other treatments, such as chemotherapy for cancer. [ETA: They can also be used in transplants, which cure some blood cancer patients.] There are not 65 cures from ASCs, this number comes from David Prentice’s quack list and has been adopted by anti-research zealots.
Secondly, they have been researched for over 40 years! ESCs could not even be cultured (grown) in the lab until roughly 1998, plus the crazy “ethical” objections from people (not even in the scientific field, usually) have meant that there has been very little funding to study ESCs over the last decade or so. 10 years! Less than a quarter of the time that has been devoted to ASCs.
We need to do research to utilise the potential of these cells – something people who actually work with them or have benefited from treatments do accept, unlike your average dude in the street.
Please understand this.
I wrote that because for some time around 2007/2008 I was quite active in a group on Facebook that was created to support Stem Cell Research at a time when George Bush’s government was sucking the funding from science in the USA, seriously holding back developments that could have been used to save lives the world over.
Thankfully now there is a president who seems to better understand the value of science and has put actual scientists with the necessary background knowledge to make decent decisions into influential positions. American science is on the up again.
During the Bush admin, the religious nutters were out in force decrying everything they disagreed with, stem cell research especially. Despite it being nothing to do with abortion at all, people didn’t understand this or bother to find out, but it was some small consolation to be part of a group that aimed (and succeeded in many cases) to educate people on this matter.
It’s nice to be able to look back on the group now to see that the focus has almost entirely shifted to one of support rather than attack. This really goes to show the destructive power of having the wrong person in the top job – the misinformed noisy masses are encouraged to do their damage.