Tiny stem cells generate huge debate
Mrs. Pollock has participated in drug trials and undergone two brain surgeries in hopes of easing her symptoms and living a more normal life. She’d be willing to participate in experiments using stem cells taken from frozen embryos.
“You need to try anything and everything,” she said, sitting in her scooter in her sun-drenched kitchen. “You never know what’s going to develop. It’s an opportunity to take advantage of.”
Seven miles away in a split-level home on the Broadneck Peninsula, Thomas M. Lynch is uneasy with the idea of using stem cells from embryos in medical research.
He strongly believes that those tiny clusters of cells – left over from fertilization procedures – are human beings at their earliest stage. As such, they should be treated as humans and not sacrificed for science, he said.
“It’s not a tulip, it’s not a cat. It’s a human and we should attach human rights,” Mr. Lynch said in his living room, warmed by a fire crackling in the fireplace. “It’s the human rights issue of our time.”
Mrs. Pollock and Mr. Lynch represent starkly divergent positions on the emotional issue of embryonic stem cell research. The debate has raged across the country and in Washington where President Bush limited the scope and funding for federally supported research using embryos.
The debate moves to Annapolis this week, as state lawmakers consider a pair of bills with opposite intentions – one to prohibit research using embryonic stem cells, the other to encourage it and award grants to scientists.
The issue is sure to divide the General Assembly, as almost even numbers of lawmakers have pledged their support to the different bills. Anne Arundel County’s lawmakers are divided as well. As of Friday, 11 county delegates and senators had signed onto the bill prohibiting embryonic stem cell research. Five support the bill promoting and financing the use of embryos in stem cell research.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hasn’t taken an official stance on either bill, said spokesman Henry Fawell.
Though the governor supports biological research – a booming industry, especially in Montgomery County – he has “a lot of outstanding questions with this legislation,” Mr. Fawell said. “He will reserve judgment until it reaches his desk, if it gets there.”
Science and religion
Mr. Ehrlich isn’t alone in having questions about stem cell research. With strong sentiment on both sides, it’s easy to misunderstand the issue.
Stem cells are unspecialized cells that have the uncanny ability to quickly reproduce into different types of specialized cells, such as the building blocks of blood, skin or organs, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Scientists, reasoning that stem cells could replace damaged cells that cause diseases, believe that stem cells could hold the key to curing a wide variety of diseases, from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s to Lou Gehrig’s diseases and even juvenile diabetes.
While there is little controversy over the morality of using stem cells from adults, the use of stem cells from embryos invokes heated debate.
According to NIH, scientists first extracted stem cells from mouse embryos in 1981. In 1998, they figured out how to extract stem cells from human embryos. The inner cell mass of a 3- to 5-day-old embryo is pulled out into a dish, where the stem cells are stimulated to grow in a special culture. Once they grow into millions of unspecialized stem cells, the cells are referred to as a “stem cell line.”
At that point, Mr. Lynch and other opponents of the research argue that scientists are dealing with human beings in their earliest form. At three days, testing the DNA of a embryo will reveal it is indeed a human, he said.
While opposition to using embryonic stem cells is often rooted in religion, and he’s a practicing Catholic, Mr. Lynch said he looks at the issue from a scientific perspective. Mr. Lynch, 36, been active in pro-life issues since college and is a member of Maryland Right to Life.
“You don’t even have to turn to philosophy or religion,” said Mr. Lynch, a lawyer who is married with four small children. “You need an objective standard, which is science.”
Steve and Kate Johnson are reminded of the promise of those tiny clusters of cells every time they hold their 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Zara.
The Pennsylvania couple adopted five embryos from a Canadian couple. After the second attempt of implanting the embryos, Mrs. Johnson was able to carry Zara to term.
Zara is one of several dozen “snowflake” babies born in the United States, so named because the children came from frozen cells and each is unique, like a snowflake. The Johnson family will be in Annapolis this week to testify in favor of banning embryonic stem cell research.
“She is one of those very things we’re talking about destroying – a very giggly, active child,” Mr. Johnson said in a telephone interview from his home near Reading.
The Johnsons have another personal connection to the issue – Mr. Johnson was paralyzed in a bicycling accident nearly 12 years ago and uses a wheelchair. Though he might be able to benefit from embryonic stem cell research, he remains opposed.
“I ache for a cure. I would love to see a cure for paralysis, but not if it means the destruction of an embryo,” he said.
“There’s no hope”
Bob Gregory of Arnold, who supports stem cell research, said he understands where opponents are coming from. But he thinks some of them might change their minds if they were in his shoes.
Since 1999, Mr. Gregory has lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
ALS is a progressive nerve disease in which a person slowly loses control of his muscles. Using special technology, including voice recognition software because he can no longer type, Mr. Gregory has been able to keep his job as an information technology manager for the government.
But it’s been a painful and difficult road that will only get harder.
“Your muscles are degenerating and dying and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Mr. Gregory said. “There is no hope for ALS.”
Mr. Gregory thinks putting state money into research could pay dividends several times over, especially if scientists in Maryland develop successful stem cell treatments.
“Then that would be an economic boon. That would be a good investment,” he said.
He doesn’t know if embryonic stem cell therapies would help him, but thinks the technique should be given a chance.
“It’s a tough one. It depends on where you determine where life begins. That’s the biggest question for anyone in my shoes or anyone with a loved one,” he said.
AT A GLANCE
State lawmakers will consider two bills related to embryonic stem cell research this week:
Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2005 – HB885/SB272
The bill would: Ban all types of human cloning, including the techniques used to extract stem cells from an embryo and grow them. The crime would be a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Civil penalties that start at $1 million could be assessed for anyone who has a financial gain from it.
Maryland Stem Cell Research Act of 2005 – HB1183/SB751
The bill would: Set guidelines for embryonic stem cell research and establish the Maryland Stem Cell Research Fund to finance that research. The fund would be financed by money paid to the state by cigarette companies through the multistate tobacco settlement. This bill also would make it a crime to profit from selling embryos, punishable by three years in prison and a $50,000 fine. Anyone who attempts cloning human beings could face 10 years in prison or a $200,000 fine.