Alan's monthly letter for November 2014
The test was positive. He had cancer. The tumor was only six centimeters, but because it was in his trachea (his windpipe), it had almost completely blocked his ability to breathe. He would probably die from suffocation before the cancer killed him. At just 36 years old (and the father of two), his prognosis was grim.
Thankfully, advances in stem-cell research gave scientists an idea. What if they could use new technologies to treat this patient’s condition? Stem cells have received a lot of press, but what are they and how could they help?
Your body is composed of over 200 different types of specialized cells: blood cells, muscle cells, brain cells, bone cells, etc. Stem cells, though, are unspecialized cells. They don’t have a function…yet. Through a process known as differentiation, stem cells become specialized. They transform from being a general cell to a specific type of cell. During the transformation, they also create another stem cell. That makes them self-renewing.
When you were a week-old embryo, you were composed primarily of stem cells. These cells differentiated into various cell types to create tissue that would form every part of your body.
You can see why stem cells are promising. If scientists can harness the power to create specific cells and tissues, they can create new body parts and organs. This revolution in medicine would allow them to treat a whole host of diseases and disabilities.
Because of this potential, scientists harvest human embryos left over from fertility clinics. They extract stem cells from these tiny humans to use them in research. This is known as embryonic stem cell research (ESCR).
Another source of stem cells is from human clones. Once a clone (or twin) of a patient is made, they allow it to grow for a week. Then, they extract its stem cells (through ESCR) to create genetically matched tissue that won’t be rejected by the patient’s body.
ESCR, however, is immoral. Removing stem cells from a human embryo kills the developing human. Without stem cells, a week-old human can’t build his or her body. That’s why ESCR is morally wrong: It kills an innocent human being.
Fortunately, scientists have discovered another source of stem cells: adult human beings. Since stem cells have been self-renewing since our embryonic days, they continue to grow and live in our bodies today. They are found in our bone marrow, brain, fat, eyes, and many other places.
Here’s the great news. Not only do our bodies contain lots of stem cells, but removing them doesn’t kill us. That means we can still treat disease and disability without killing innocent human beings.
In fact, that’s what scientists and doctors did for the young man with a tumor in his trachea. They took stem cells from his bone marrow and grew them on a trachea-shaped scaffold for two days. During surgery, they removed the man’s cancer-infested trachea and replaced it with the new one they grew in the lab. Now the man is cancer free and has a normal life expectancy.
This type of science fiction medicine isn’t an isolated incident, either. Scientists have treated a form of blindness where a person’s cornea (outermost layer of the eye) becomes opaque. They took stem cells from the person’s eye, grew a new cornea, removed the old one, and then grafted the new cornea onto the damaged eye. They’ve also treated heart attack patients. Scientists extracted stem cells from patients’ bone marrow and directly inserted them into the damaged heart tissue. This triggered the growth of new heart muscle and blood vessels, improving the function of the heart. It’s amazing.
Adult stem cell therapy has helped human beings for the last 20 years. To date, stem cells have been used in the treatment of 73 different conditions. How many successful human treatments have embryonic stem cells achieved? Zero. None. Nada. ESCR is still being performed on animals in the hopes it will one day deliver on its promise to treat humans.
Adult stem cell research has everything going for it. It’s easier, more effective, and isn’t morally problematic. Not only is it not necessary to clone human beings (because your body won’t reject your own stem cells), you don’t have to kill any unborn human beings either.
This is a refreshing change for Christians. Too often we’re the ones resisting the latest scientific advancement. In this case, though, we can champion a new frontier in medicine without compromising our moral position.