Stem Cell Research

Brief Facts

– Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research (hESC) is ethically wrong because it destroys human persons at the embryonic stage of development.
– Adult Stem Cell Research is ethically justifiable because it does NOT destroy lives.
– hESC Research has found no treatments or cures, rather ESCs cause tumors and cancer. Adult Stem Cell Research has found 77 treatments/cures.
– We now have amazing new technology that is quickly making hESC research extinct and obsolete: Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSC). iPSCs have the advantages of hESCs, but do NOT kill humans at the embryonic stage of developmental. iPSCs are cells that possess the same pluripotent characteristics of embryonic stem cells; however, they are not obtained from embryos, nor using eggs or cloning. They are obtained by taking an ordinary somatic (body) cell, like a skin cell, and reprogramming it to an embryonic-like pluripotent state.


Stem cell research began in the mid 1800′s with the discovery that some cells could generate other cells. In the early 1900′s the first real stem cells were discovered when it was found that some cells generate blood cells. The history of stem cell research includes work with both animal and human stem cells. A prominent application of stem cell research has been bone marrow transplants using adult stem cells. In the early 1900′s physicians administered bone marrow by mouth to patients with anemia and leukemia. Although such therapy was unsuccessful, laboratory experiments eventually demonstrated that mice with defective marrow could be restored to health with infusions into the blood stream of marrow taken from other mice. This caused physicians to speculate whether it was feasible to transplant bone marrow from one human to another. Among early attempts to do this were several transplants carried out in France following a radiation accident in the late 1950′s.

Performing marrow transplants in humans was not attempted on a larger scale until a French medical researcher made a critical medical discovery about the human immune system. In 1958 Jean Dausset identified the first of many human histocompatibility antigens. These proteins, found on the surface of most cells in the body, are called human leukocyte antigens, or HLA antigens. These HLA antigens give the body’s immune system the ability to determine what belongs in the body and what does not. Whenever the body does not recognize the series of antigens on the cell walls, it creates antibodies and other substances to destroy the cell.

In 1998, James Thompson (University of Wisconsin – Madison) isolated cells from the inner cell mass of early embryos, and developed the first embryonic stem cell lines. In the same year, John Gearhart (Johns Hopkins University) derived germ cells from cells in fetal gonadal tissue (primordial germ cells). Ethical concerns over this type of embryonic stem cell research has been expressed in the following US legal regulations:

In 1973, a moratorium was placed on government funding for human embryo research. In 1988, a NIH panel voted 19 to 2 in favor of government funding. In 1990, Congress voted to override the moratorium on government funding of embryonic stem cell research, which was vetoed by President George Bush. President Clinton lifted the ban, but changed his mind the following year after public outcry. Congress banned federal funding in 1995. In 1998, DHHS Secretary Sullivan extended the moratorium. In 2000, President Bill Clinton allowed funding of research on cells derived from aborted human fetuses, but not from embryonic cells. On August 9, 2001, President George W. Bush announced his decision to allow Federal funding of research only on existing human embryonic stem cell lines created prior to his announcement. His concern was to not foster the continued destruction of living human embryos. In 2004, both houses of Congress asked President George W. Bush to review his policy on embryonic stem cell research. President George W. Bush released a statement reiterating his moral qualms about creating human embryos to destroy them, and refused to reverse the federal policy banning government funding of ESC research.


There are three types of stem cells: Embryonic, Adult, and Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells. Adult Stem Cells are generally limited to differentiating into different cell types of their tissue of origin. However, evidence suggests that adult stem cell plasticity may exist, increasing the number of cell types a given adult stem cell can become.

Large numbers of Embryonic Stem Sells can be relatively easily grown in culture, while adult stem cells are rare in mature tissues and methods for expanding their numbers in cell culture have not yet been worked out. With Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, the supply is unlimited because of the ability to reprogram different cells already present in a person’s body. This is an important distinction, as large numbers of cells are needed for stem cell replacement therapies.

A potential advantage of using stem cells from an adult is that the patient’s own cells could be expanded in culture and then reintroduced into the patient. The use of the patient’s own adult stem cells would mean that the cells would not be rejected by the immune system. This represents a significant advantage as immune rejection is a difficult problem that can only be circumvented with immunosuppressive drugs.

Embryonic stem cells from a donor introduced into a patient cause transplant rejection. However, whether the recipient would reject donor embryonic stem cells has not been determined in human experiments.

The most recent discovery in Stem Cell Research are the Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells or iPSCs. As stated above, we now have amazing new technology that is quickly making Embryonic Stem Cell (ESC) research extinct and obsolete. iPSCs have the advantages of ESCs, but do NOT kill humans at embryonic developmental stage. iPSCs are cells that possess the same pluripotent characteristics of embryonic stem cells; however, they are not obtained from embryos, nor using eggs or cloning. They are obtained by taking an ordinary somatic (body) cell, like a skin cell, and reprogramming it to an embryonic-like pluripotent state. For more information about iPSCs, click here.

Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, The Future of Regenerative Medicine

We now have amazing new technology that is quickly making human Embryonic Stem Cell (hESC) reasearch extinct and obsolete: Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSC). iPSCs have the advantages of human Embryonic Stem Cells, but do NOT kill humans at the embryonic stage of development. iPSCs are cells that possess the same pluripotent characteristics of embryonic stem cells; however, they are not obtained from embryos, nor do they require the use of eggs or cloning. They are obtained by taking an ordinary somatic (body) cell, like a skin cell, and reprogramming it to an embryonic-like pluripotent state.

The ability to reprogram ordinary body cells into pluripotent cells is considered one of the major scientific advances of our time. Many scientists have strongly suggested that this new development represents the future of regenerative medicine, with human embryonic stem cells now becoming obsolete. Even scientists like Ian Wilmut who was the cloning pioneer and creator of Dolly the sheep has said, “The fact that introduction of a small number of proteins into adult human cells could produce cells that are equivalent to embryo stem cells takes us to an entirely new era of stem cell biology.” In fact, iPS cells are preferable to cloning, on both ethical and practical grounds.

Recent Discoveries in iPSCs

Dr. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, who was also the first to grow human ESC, and Prof Shinya Yamanaka from Japan have each had high profile papers released in Science & Cell. Both show that embryonic-type stem cells can be produced directly from ordinary human cells (such as a skin cell) without first creating an embryo.
Prof. Yamanaka published a second paper in Nature Biotechnology in which he explained how he achieved the same result with human and mouse cells by adding only 3 genes and omitting one gene that had cancer-causing potential.

Both groups used viruses to add the genes, but they have already refined the technique to eliminate the use of viruses.
The “direct reprogramming” technique, first developed by Yamanaka in mice in 2006, involves adding 3-4 genetic factors to an ordinary cell, such as a skin cell. These “reprogram” or “dedifferentiate” the cell directly into an embryonic-type stem cell (called “iPS cells”–induced Pluripotent Stem cells.)
They do not start with adult stem cells, and they do not produce adult stem cells. These are EMBRYONIC-type stem cells.
iPSCs have the same monumental advantages of Embryonic Stem Cells (i.e. nearly unlimited pluripotency) without the crippling human Embryonic Stem Cell disadvantage of destroying human lives at the embryonic stage.


Coupled with the announcement by Ian Wilmut (the “father of Dolly”) that he is abandoning cloning as a method, in favor of Yamanaka’s method to get embryonic stem cells directly, these are significant announcements. Wilmut, Thomson, and Yamanaka should be congratulated on turning from questionable science that has produced no useable results, to focusing on more promising scientific methods, easier, cheaper, and available for funding now, that also meet the ethical bar.
These events indicate there is no need to destroy embryos, nor clone embryos for research.

Adult Stem Cell Successes

While most disease research organizations, such as Juvenile Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis and the Canadian Cancer Society, continue to promote the use of living embryonic human beings for experimentation, the only success stories to date have all come from the use of adult stem cells.

A young American woman, Erica Nader, injured in a car accident and paralyzed from the upper arms down, has been treated for a spinal cord injury using stem cells taken from her nose and implanted in the spinal cord at the site of the injury. The procedure, which is performed nowhere else in the world was performed by a team of surgeons in Portugal at Lisbon’s Egas Moniz Hospital. “After three years, magnetic imaging resonance tests (MRI’s) show that the cells indeed promote the development of new blood cells and synapses, or connections between nerve cells,” says Dr. Carlos Lima, chief of the Lisbon team.

Nader is recovering slowly but steadily. She was paralyzed from her biceps down and three years ago had no finger movements. Now, she can do exercises on a floor mat and walk with leg braces on a treadmill.


Because embryonic stem cells are obtained from destroyed embryos, the concerns are similar to those surrounding abortion. The possibility that cell lines could be developed from cloned embryos raises ethical concerns associated with the propriety of human cloning. While the potential has always existed, the problem has been that in order to obtain these human embryonic stem cells, the embryo is destroyed during the harvesting procedure.

There is no controversy revolving around the use of human adult stem cells in research, since they can be retrieved from the individual requiring the therapy. In addition to the advantages of previously unknown adult stem cells and their unexpected ability to produce numerous types of cells, adult stem cells carry the added potential of not causing any immune complications. Conceivably adult stem cells could be harvested from the individual needing the therapy, grown in culture to increase their number, and then be reinserted back into the same individual. This means the treatment could be carried out with the patient’s own cells, virtually eliminating any rejection problems. Adult stem cells may also be easier to control since they already possess the ability to produce the needed cells simply by being placed in the vicinity of the damaged tissue. Once again, iPSCs are the answer to this ethical controversy and many scientists are turning to iPSCs instead of Embryonic Stem Cell Research.

Legislative Action

We should push to ban all human cloning (S. 1036, Brownback-Landrieu; H.R. 2564, Weldon-Stupak), and we should not force taxpayers to fund research that requires the destruction of human embryos. Instead, we should shift resources to fund ethical research. Scientists that want embryonic stem cells can have them without embryo creation or destruction.
Since 1996 Congress has passed an amendment called the Dickey-Wicker Amendment which bans federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.  In 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order to begin federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. There was a lawsuit imediately filed and in August of 2010, a federal district judge ruled that President Obama’s Executive Order violated the Dickey-Wiker Amendment and halted all Embryonic Stem Cell reaserch and federal funds going to the projects. Soon after, the Administration filed an appeal and Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado has also indicated that she will be presenting a bill in Congress in September, 2010 to repeal the Dickey-Wicker Amendment and to allow for federally funded Embryonic Stem Cell Research.

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