What is Stem Cell Research
Stem cells are cells with the ability
to divide for indefinite periods in culture and to give rise to specialized
cells. Stem cells have two characteristics that differentiate them from other
types of cells:
- Stem cells are unspecialized cells that replicate themselves
for long periods through cell division.
- Under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, stem cells
can be induced to become mature cells with special functions, such as the
beating cells of the heart muscle or insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.
studies are researching how stem cells may be used to prevent or cure diseases
and injuries such as Parkinson's disease, type 1 diabetes, heart disease,
spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer's disease, strokes, burns,
osteoarthritis, vision and hearing loss. In addition, stem cells could also be
used to replace or repair tissue damaged by disease or injury.
Difficult Past for Stem Cell Research
The first known use of the term “stem cell” appeared in scientific
literature, when German biologist Ernst Haeckel used the phrase stem cell to
describe the fertilized egg that becomes an organism. Since that day, research
conducted using stem cells has met largely with opposition. In 1996, Congress
banned federal funding for research on embryos by passing the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. While the statute
prohibited the use of federal funds for the creation of a human embryo for
research purposes, it did not completely limit the private sector. The
National Institutes of Health (NIH) interpreted the Dickey-Wicker Statute to create certain guidelines for the private sector.
First, human embryonic stem cells must be a result of private funding from
frozen embryos in fertility clinics. Second, they must have been created for
fertility treatment purposes. Third, they be in excess of the donor's clinical
need. Finally, they be obtained with consent of the donor.
Stem cell research functioned in this manner from 2001 until an
executive order was passed in 2009 by President Barack Obama. The executive order, titled "Removing
Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells,"
with the purpose of removing the barriers involving human embryonic stem cells
and human non-embryonic stem cells. Shortly after the executive order, a group
of plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against NIH and the Department of Health and
Human Services, contending that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research
is in violation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment. The case was brought up against
Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. Secretary of
Health and Human Services in 2009. The District Court for the District of
concluded that the defendants reasonably interpreted the Dickey-Wicker
Amendment to permit funding for human embryonic stem cell research because the
research was not “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.”
This decision was upheld in 2013 by the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit.
Steam Cell Research
The major contention with stem cell research is due to the fact
that to acquire stem cells a four or five-day old embryo must be destroyed.
However, researchers may have found a way to make stem cells by
purposely putting mature cells under stress. What could
possibly be a huge breakthrough for stem cell research the medical team led by Dr. Charles Vacanti, director of the
laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at Brigham &
Women's Hospital in Boston, have tried to force mature cells into creating stem
cells by placing them under extreme stress. One method that has been attempted
is to put the cells in an acidic environment. This places the cells in a “natural” environment that they can react to. This
advancement in stem cell research can allow more testing to be completed with a
cheaper, safer, and faster method.
Another breakthrough in stem cell research is the ability to
graph human cells from other muscle tissue in the body to help with the
regeneration and recovery process after injuries. Until recently the so-called
“satellite cells” were only successful in
mice transplants. However, on September 22, 2015 researchers have successfully
isolated human muscle stem cells and shown that the cells could robustly
replicate and repair damaged muscles when grafted onto an injured site. This
characterization of human muscle stem cells and the ability to transplant them
into injured muscles has wide-ranging implications for patients suffering from
muscle paralysis, whose damaged muscles have lost the ability to regenerate.
In conclusion, stem cell research is an area of medicine that is
growing rapidly with extremely high upside. The scientific community has made
huge leaps forward in recent years and in the future we may see stem cell
research be able to detect cancer, repair damaged muscles, cure blindness, or
even help cure paralysis. However, it still remains experimental in nearly all
cases with plenty of room to grow.
Anthony Lopez is currently
a second-year law student at DePaul University College of Law. In addition to
his work for the Mary and Michael Jaharis Health Law Institute at DePaul,
Anthony also is the Wolters Kluwer Staff Member and a Staff Writer for the