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Rights to Research and the Stem Cell Debate

The Science Behind Stem Cell Research

The Goals of Stem Cell Research

Adult Stem Cells vs. Embryonic Stem Cells

The Impasse Over The Embryo

A lot of the controversy over stem cell research has to do with a general lack of knowledge concerning the science behind stem cell research and the possible diseases that advancements in stem cell research could cure. Restricting research hinders these new finds and halts our future understanding of the events that occur during human development. A better understanding of the possibilities that are enclosed in the embryonic stem cell may persuade people to realize the value of human embryonic stem cell research.

    The Goals of Stem Cell Research

The science behind stem cell research is very complicated and intricate. Yet with a little simplification anyone can understand the possibilities that stem cell research holds and the science behind the results. Scientists believe that continuing embryonic stem cell research will lead to two things: the cure to various deadly diseases and a further understanding of human development. Stem cell lines grown in the lab provide scientists with new ways to explore transplantation and treatment of disease.[1] Scientists see the possibilities of disease curing stem cells as two fold. One of the goals of stem cell research is to determine how undifferentiated cells become differentiated. Figuring out how this transformation occurs is essential to discovering cures for some of the most serious medical conditions, like cancer and birth defects, since these illnesses are due to abnormal cell division.[2] The other goal of stem cell research is to harness stem cells so  they could be used in the re-generation of cells and tissues, useful for cell-based therapies. Many scientists see this goal as the most important application of stem cell research. They feel that using stem cells for cell-based therapies is so important because the need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.[3]Stem cells are also thought to be a key tool in learning about the complex events that happen during human development and will hopefully give scientists a better idea of exactly what happens after fertilization of the egg.[4] According to the National Institute of Health,

Stem cells differ from other kinds of cells in the body. All stem cells—regardless of their source—have three general properties: they are capable of dividing and renewing themselves for long periods; they are unspecialized; and they can give rise to specialized cell types.[5]

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 Adult Stem Cells vs. Embryonic Stem Cells

There are two main types of stem cells, embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. According to the NIH, “embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos and have been developed from eggs that have been fertilized in-vitro. They are seen to have more potential than adult stem cells because they can differentiate and adapt to more situations.[6] Adult stem cells are an undifferentiated cell found among differentiated cells in a tissue or an organ. An adult stem cell can renew itself but unlike embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells can differentiate themselves to yield the major specialized cell types of the tissue or organ that they were found in.[7]  With all the promise of stem cell research there are still some uncertainties. Because embryonic stem cells are derived from embryo’s that are not related to the patient there is the potential that the patient’s immune system will attack or reject the newly implanted stem cell.[8] In order for stem cell therapy to become an effective form of disease treatment, scientists will have to first figure out a way to bypass that stem cell through each person’s individual immune system. The science behind stem cell research seems hopeful and in the future, stem cells could cure spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, strokes, diabetes, liver disease, heart disease, poor circulation, hemophilia, Muscular dystrophy, sickle cell disease and fanconi anemia. The science behind stem cell research is politicized because of the use of the embryo, but it seems that future stem cell treatments may save more people than stem cell research “kills.”

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The Impasse over the Embryo

The controversy over stem cell research can be broken into two categories: On one side of the controversy is the religious issue. For some religious groups the use of embryonic stem cells hits a nerve because embryonic stem cells are four day old fertilized eggs and to those who believe that life begins at conception using a fertilized egg for research is murder. On the other side of the controversy is the political issue and the rights of scientists to research. Many religious groups feel that any fertilized embryo no matter how old can be categorized as a human life. According to Ronald Cole-Turner author  of “When Religion Meets Research,” “On one side are the many Christians who look at the embryo and see a member of the human family, a neighbor, a being that is human and worthy of the same protection as any of us, all the more so because it is tiny and vulnerable.”[9] These Christians and some orthodox Jews do not object to studying adult stem cells. But according to scientists adult stem cells do not have the research capabilities or the potential that embryonic stem cells have. The idea of the embryo as a growing human versus the need for the embryonic stem cell as a device to curb deadly and detrimental diseases creates an impasse over the embryo.  According to Ronald Cole-Turner, the author of “Religion Meets Research,” the impasse over the embryo is what has fostered the political and moral debate surrounding stem cell research and is currently restricting embryonic stem cell research.

This impasse over the embryo affects scientific research and the future of medicine, determining how and where research is done, who approves it, who might benefit, and what the long-term implications might be. The impasse is mediated through the political arena…but beneath the science and the politics, the impasse is religious, grounded in two competing views of the dignity of the embryo.[10]


The impasse over the embryo makes it politically charged and blurs the line between politics and religion. According to Cole-Turner, because of the intense religious concerns regarding the embryo, any analysis of public policy must take religion into account. Cole-Turner goes on to argue that the charged religious context is responsible for the failure in the U.S to develop a regulatory framework concerning embryonic research.[11] Up to this point, the 8United States has developed a loose policy regarding stem cell research.

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[1] “Stem Cells and Diseases.” The National Institute of Health. <>. Accessed on 4/16/06.

[2]“Stem Cell Basics.” The National Institute of Health. <> accessed on 4/16/06.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] “Stem Cell 101.” Stem Cell Institute: The University of Minnesota. <>  Accessed on 4/16/06.

[9] Cole-Turner, Ronald. “When Religion Meets Research,” in God And the Embryo: Religious Voices on Stem Cells and Cloning. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2003.


[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Figure 2: "The Great Stem Cell Divide: The Science and Politics of Stem Cell research." The Standford Medicine Magazine. <> Accessed on 4/30/06.

Figure 3: "What are Stem Cells?" The Harvard Stem Cell Institue. <> accessed on 4/30/06.

Figure 4: "The Great Stem Cell Divide: The Science and Politics of Stem Cell research." The Standford Medicine Magazine. <> Accessed on 4/30/06.

Figure 5: Mably, Greg. "Stem Cell Primer." Everything you wanted to know about stem cells and more. The Standford Medicine Magazine. <> Accessed on 4/30/06.

A cardiac muscle cell colony from tissue
grown from an embryonic stem cell.
Figure 2

a diagram of how stem cells become
differntiated cells.
Figure 3

Human Embryonic Stem Cells growing
 in  culture
Figure 4


the process by which a normal cell
and an egg become an embryonic
 stem cell line.
Figure 5

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