from www.duke.edu Image from www.duke.edu

One may ask why I am arguing against embryonic stem cells at all. Mormonism, with its ensoulment concept is clearly flexible enough to stand with the majority of America on this. Some of the leading proponents in the Senate campaigning to loosen up restrictions are Mormon. They have been dubbed the Mormon Stem Cell Choir.

Here is the way I see it. Regardless on where you fall in the when does human life begin and whether treating debilitating diseases or respecting life/potential life spectrum, all this political infighting is pointless. All that is happening is that we start demonizing the other side. We refuse to make any concession or compromise, or refuse to even begin to understand the other side.

The fact is it has long been law of the land that, on account of patent offensiveness toward a significant minority of Americans, it is illegal to use tax dollars for research on embryos. But this does not mean there aren’t more palatable ways to do virtually the same research. The question is whether any of these methods causes significant road blocks in the search for therapies.

It should be realized that all stem cell therapies, including embryonic would require a lot of work before they lead to real medical treatments. To be successful the therapy must

  • Proliferate extensively and generate sufficient quantities of tissue.
  • Differentiate into the desired cell type(s).
  • Survive in the recipient after transplant.
  • Integrate into the surrounding tissue after transplant.
  • Function appropriately for the duration of the recipient’s life.
  • Avoid harming the recipient in any way.
  • We are a long way from accomplishing all of these things together at present. It will realistically take years, if not decades to completely iron it out. We have time if we have the will, to sit down hash these things out and look into embryo alternatives. That way, there are no further arguments, everybody understands the rules and the line in the sand is bright and clear.

    I think it is absolutely worthwhile to look into alternatives to creating new embryos. The fact is there are a number of workable alternatives, that traditionally have garnered less media attention. Here is a list of some alternative pluripotent stem cell sources you may or may not have heard of.

    Adult Stem Cells-This made big headlines recently. It seems the media just discovered there might be an alternative to totipotent embryos. These cells are a very small population of cells, found at various sites in the body, which have the ability to become a wide variety of cell types. This variety is much less than what you can do with a embryo however, which of course can become a complete and total human being.

    Scientists have been shown these cells can be “reprogrammed” by knocking out a few genes into making cells that look like liver cells or skin cells or other unrelated cells. The problem is there are a lot of genes that would need reprogramming to revert to complete pluripotency, or the ability to become any cell type without the ability to become a complete organism We don’t even know what many of these genes are.

    In addition, there are gene switching proteins in every adult cell that could counteract any reprogramming in ways not yet understood and shoot it down without us realizing it until the graft fails.

    Reprogramming is also the technique that cancer cells use to grow out of control. Until this method is absolutely perfect, the most likely complication will be a brand new tumor, injected right into the patient. I daresay it will be a while before you find people willing to have potential cancers injected into themselves to cure their diabetes or Parkinson’s disease.

    So why all the enthusiasm? This originates with a recent experiment that took adult stem cells and combined them with a second technique, namely;

    Using a technique called nuclear transfer, mice were cloned using adult skin stem cells (right) and a more differentiated type of skin cell (left). The mouse on the right is almost two years old and the mouse on the right is one and a half.

    (Credit: Jinsong Li, Postdoc in the Mombaerts Laboratory, Rockefeller University)

    Nuclear transfer- This procedure takes the nucleus from a body cell and uses it to replace the nucleus of an egg cell. With no proteins in the egg to shut anything off, the cell may divide into a complete organism. This method brought us Dolly the Sheep. More recently, Scientists took mice stem cell nucleii from their skin and cloned mice by transferring those nucleii into mice egg cells. This result was stunning in that it showed we can clone body cells, skin cells! for the first time, and this without any experimentation on embryonic stem cells.

    What is supercool about this method is that you could use a patient’s own genes, limiting the possibility of rejection, meaning that a patient’s own skin could conceivably be used one day to develop his own organ transplant or disease treatment.

    Excitement aside, this is cloning. Is this really all that different than a embryonic cell? As you can see from this picture the mice are quite alive and kicking. Thus this technique creates totipotency rather than pluripotency. Granted it is cloned totipotency rather than a unique individual totipotency but no one has problems treating identical twins as individuals. For all intents and purposes, twins are nature’s “accidental” clones. So all the theoretical ethical problems re-emerge. How long would it be before the have the scenario seen in the movie, The Island?

    In addition, it takes a lot of trial and error and thus a lot of egg cells to make a successful transfer. Human eggs are hard to come by and this technique as it is now burns through them. While the enthusiasm is great, it is probably premature.

    Umbilical cord blood stem cells- These are cells found in the umbilical cord or newly born infants that are more “primitive” than adult cells and therefore, more flexible in the types of tissues they can become. These cells have been shown in some papers to become apparent nerve cells, liver cells, or other types scientists were very enthusiastic about 10 years ago.

    However time has shown that just because a cell shows the markers of being a certain cell type, doesn’t mean it will function entirely as that cell type. Basically, we have the same problem we have with adult cells in that we don’t know enough about what turned which genes off. We cannot yet revert these to a pure embryonic totipotent state, which is really the goal. It is a goal obviously alleviated by using totipotent cells in the first place.

    Altered nuclear transfer- Here is my favorite. I see very little here that can cause continued objection. It feels like the perfect compromise and place to start moving forward with boundaries defined. The idea comes from a totally natural phenomenon which many find fascinating and disturbing at once, the teratoma. Basically a teratoma is a mysterious tumor that develops tissues, sometimes even complex organs completely different from the surrounding tissue. Basically they contain the ability to become any specific tissue but lack the organizational ability to become an organism. A very, basic factor that gives an embryo a top, bottom, front, back, left and right is apparently knocked out.

    In altered nuclear transfer, as opposed to basic Nuclear Transfer, certain proteins in the Egg cell are neutralized when the nucleus of the Egg is removed. These proteins are the instruction part of the egg that tells future cells that they are front or back, up or down, and which cell they need to develop into next. If you take this out, whatever you make simply cannot become a complete organism, however you can still theoretically develop the cells into any part of the organism.

    Essentially this solves the entire riddle about how to make stem cells without making cloning or making embryos. Sure some smaller problems, namely procuring eggs for research remain, but this seems more solvable. Now scientists and religionists can go back to fighting over evolution or the meaning of life, hopefully without hurting each other, and no one seeking medical treatment is left out in the cold.

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