by Matthew Williams
Under the the administration of President George W. Bush (and during the first few months of President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House), federal funding for scientific research involving embryonic stem cells was a major point of public debate. Conservatives condemned the practice as tantamount to abortion, while progressives captured the public imagination with promises of eventual cures to currently-untreatable diseases and conditions. Since then, however, the issue has largely faded from public consciousness. The purpose of this post is to review developments in scientific research using stem cells over the last decade and to consider the platform of the American Solidarity Party in light of these developments.
First, a refresher on definitions. Stem cells are naturally-occuring cells in the body which can divide to form more stem cells (a process called “self-renewal”) and also to form specialized cells (a process called “differentiation”). These two capabilities make stem cells attractive for studying both diseases and drugs. They also have therapeutic potential for regenerating body tissues.
Stem cells can be acquired from a number of different sources. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are collected from embryos three to five days old, called blastocysts. These embryos are generally created by in vitro fertilization and then are later donated for research. When stem cells are collected from embryos, the embryos are invariably destroyed. Adult stem cells, also called somatic stem cells, are found in many different tissues of adult humans. There are also perinatal stem cells, which are found in the amniotic fluid of the placenta and in umbilical-cord blood. Progress has also been made with a fourth source: induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). Using a Nobel Prize-winning method which was developed by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka in 2006, adult stem cells can be genetically modified to regain pluripotency while retaining their compatibility with the donor. iPSCs were initially very inefficient to produce, but the process has since been improved.
As readers may recall, it was the destruction of human embryos that lay at the heart of the public debate about stem cell research. Those who believe that life begins at conception generally regard the destruction of embryos as a great moral wrong. The reason scientists have sought to use ESCs despite the controversy surrounding them is that such cells are pluripotent—able to differentiate into any kind of specialized cell (except those that will form the placenta). Unaltered adult stem cells lack this quality and were initially thought to be only capable of differentiating into the different cells of their native organ. This significantly limited their feasibility for research (that is, research would become prohibitively expensive and difficult to the point of disincentivizing researchers). Additionally, adult stem cells are more likely to contain abnormalities from toxins and DNA replication errors accumulated from numerous divisions. One important advantage of adult stem cells, however, is that they are less likely to be targeted by the recipient’s immune system than ESCs and so are attractive for therapeutic applications. If iPSCs continue to demonstrate progress in research and in clinical trials, they could provide the right combination of moral acceptability, practicality for research, and lower risk of rejection. The only remaining hurdle would seem to be correcting DNA errors, although such mutations may not have clinical significance in all cases.
Some cases of significant scientific misconduct in the field have also come to light since the topic of stem cell research lost popular interest. In 2009, stem cell researcher Dr. Hwang Woo-suk was convicted of fabricating data when he claimed he had successfully cloned embryonic stem cells containing nuclei originating with adult stem cells. He was also convicted of misusing research funds and illegally trading in human eggs. In 2018, Harvard Medical School recommended the retraction of 31 published studies produced by Dr. Piero Anversa, a former researcher there, for fabricating or falsifying data pertaining to adult stem cells of the heart. These two cases of misconduct created significant setbacks in their specific areas of stem cell research.
In the American Solidarity Party platform, the first essential principle articulated sets the tone for the Party’s stance on the use of ESCs: “We must build a culture and enact laws upholding the equal, innate and inviolable dignity of every human person from conception to natural death.” Setting the boundary for the beginning of life at conception includes human embryos, who would be regarded as the most vulnerable and needy among us. Under the heading Right to Life, “the intentional destruction of human embryos, in any context” is explicitly condemned. The guidelines developed by the International Society for Stem Cell Research, which recommend destroying embryos used in research no later than fourteen days after fertilization, are clearly incompatible. The Party platform goes on to support “a constitutional amendment that affirms that personhood begins at conception and declares that there is no right to abortion under the U.S. Constitution, thus reversing Roe v. Wade and its progeny.” While this statement is addressing the issue of abortion, it is clearly also applicable to the use of ESCs.
Stem cell research is not explicitly addressed in the platform. Under the heading Public Services can be found support for “[i]nvestments in scientific research and technology that advance the common good, and do not just increase the profits of private corporations” and for “increased public funding for basic research and development.” Given that iPSCs are still believed to possess great potential for curing disease and do not require the destruction of human embryos, encouraging stem cell research without the use of ESCs would appear to be compatible with the Party values.
Stem cell research, like many areas of scientific and clinical research, presents unique opportunities both to improve the lives of those suffering from afflictions and to cause grave harm to humanity, both in general and to particular individuals. In the case of ESCs, few in the pro-life movement have been able to rationalize the destruction of embryos, given the view that they are indeed human beings whose inherent dignity demands our protection. Indeed, iPSCs and other ethically acquired stem cells may yet have much to offer, but we must continue to resist the temptation to choose avenues of research that appear to offer answers sooner—especially in the face of human suffering. We must not harm the living we cannot easily see in order to benefit those we can.
“Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells 10 Years Later”. Circulation Research.
“Of stem cells and ethics”. Nature Cell Biology.
“Stem Cell Information”. National Institutes of Health.
“Stem Cell Therapies in Clinical Trials: Progress and Challenges”. Cell Stem Cell.
“Stem Cells: What are they and what do they do?” Mayo Clinic.
“Stem Cell Research”. Christian Biowiki.