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Public Misinformed about Stem Cells

Research on embryonic stem cells continues to ignite national debate over the beginning of human life. And with the Legislature likely to take up the issue in its next session, many worry that inaccur
( [email protected] ) Dec 19, 2006 11:41 AM EST

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Research on embryonic stem cells continues to ignite national debate over the beginning of human life. And with the Legislature likely to take up the issue in its next session, many worry that inaccurate information is being perpetuated by stem cell proponents and their counterparts.

Dr. David Crouse, who oversees some stem cell research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said both sides are "overselling wares."

The sentiment is shared by Chip Maxwell, executive director of the Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research. That group supports stem cell research, but not the kind involving embryos.

Maxwell said he is all for the free flow of ideas but that information should have balance. "I hope that the whole picture is explained," he said.

From a scientific standpoint, stem cells are building blocks that can turn into different types of tissue, such as kidney or liver cells. Research is being conducted on two types of stem cells — adult and embryonic — in hopes that they can lead to cures for diseases.

Adult stem cells can be found in bone marrow and umbilical cord blood, among other sources. Embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos in their earliest stages of development.

Embryonic stem cells in particular have made headlines, as scientists attempt to harness them to regenerate damaged organs or other body parts. They're essentially a blank slate, able to turn into any tissue given the right biochemical instructions.

But from an anti-abortion standpoint, human embryonic stem cell research is immoral, because isolating the cells destroys embryos, what some believe is the starting point of human life. Anti-abortion advocates cite the same argument in opposing abortion.

"The beef is that there is no question that embryos are destroyed in the harvesting of stem cells," Maxwell said. "Now you are destroying a human being."

Many scientists disagree. Crouse, who specializes in embryonic stem cells, said it boils down to a difference in perspective about when human life begins.

He said, "There is no baby, no abortion."

In fact, Crouse said, the embryos that are used are essentially medical waste.

Most embryonic stem cells used in U.S. research come from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization — where a woman's eggs are fertilized outside the womb and the resulting embryos are implanted in the uterus. If the embryos are not implanted, they are typically destroyed.

"If it's unethical to destroy an embryo," Crouse asked, "why is it so much more evil to use a stem cell for a good purpose?"

Maxwell said that rationalization is simply intended to ease people's fears about using embryos.

The small number of embryos left from in vitro fertilization cannot satisfy the needs of the scientific community, and scientists will one day want to create embryos for use in research, according to his coalition.

Where the two men agree is in their frustration over false promises of medical breakthroughs from embryonic stem cell research. Crouse and Maxwell said many people have been led to believe those stem cells will lead to cures for diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, in the near future.

In reality, the earliest results from embryonic stem cell research is five to 10 years down the road, Crouse said.

"With a cloud of political debate, there's not been a lot of progress," he said.

More research has been conducted on adult stem cells, which were discovered in the 1960s. There are commonly used today in bone marrow transplants.

In contrast, embryonic stem cells were first derived in 1998.

Crouse also said that opponents of embryonic stem cell research make weighty claims about the medical benefits of adult stem cells.

A July 2006 article in the journal Science refuted claims that there were 65 treatments that utilize adult stem cells. In truth, the article stated, there are seven.

"A great deal of research needs to be done," Crouse said.

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