George A. Sprecace M.D., J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New London, P.C.

Point and Counterpoint: Abortion and Alternatives - Article 4, for Sunday, April 23, 2006

Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Human life begins when a male sperm fertilizes a female ovum.  This fertilized ovum is a complete human being possessing all the means necessary to develop through life to old age.  The rest is a constant series of cell divisions, beginning with stem cells which live for long periods and whose function is to give rise to all the various cells types which make up the body, such as cardiac muscle cells, neuronal cells, insulin producing cells, red/white blood cells, platelets, etc., organized into tissue and then into organs.

Adult stem cells usually give rise to cells of the tissue in which they reside and which they maintain and repair.  But now there are reports that adult stem cells can differentiate  to cells distinct from the tissue within which they reside, e.g., blood stem cells giving rise to neuronal cells.  Embryonic stem cells are totipotent, meaning they give rise to all the various cell types comprising the human body.  Adult stem cells are said to be pluripotent because, to this point in time, they have only been shown to differentiate to a lesser  number of cell types.

Human embryonic stem cell research currently uses cells from an embryo 4-5 days of age, the blastocyst stage of development.  These stem cells comprise a group of about 30 cells termed the inner cell mass found at one end of the hollow blastocoel structure.  This is the point to which the human being has developed 4-5 days after fertilization/conception.  Taking the inner cell mass from the blastocyst kills the 5 day old human being.  It ends a life only 5 days after it has begun.  The science is without question.  Scientists in in vitro fertilization clinics and their clients will tell you that the 5 day old embryo is a live human being and the parents will call it their baby, their child and will seek to implant it in the mother’s womb to continue its life.  They will mourn its death at any stage of development.

The proponents of human embryonic stem cell research know the facts also, but they convince themselves that the therapies which might, but not necessarily will, come from this work are the ends which justify the means (killing the embryos).  The language used usually obfuscates the situation.  For example, “the cells are harvested”,  leaving unsaid that the embryos are thereby killed, a  word they diligently avoid.

The great challenge today is determining how to make stem cells differentiate into the desired cell types for therapeutic indications.  This research can be done with adult stem cells from a multiplicity of tissues including umbilical cord blood.

Peter Moore, PhD    George A. Sprecace, M.D., J.D.

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