Stem cell research is a complicated subject, not only scientifically but ethically as well. This past Friday (April 15) a debate at Harvard Law School promised to shed light on both aspects of this urgent issue, but probably ended up raising as many questions as it answered.
The event, “Law and Ethics in a Brave New World: What Should Government Do About Cloning & Stem Cell Research?” was sponsored by the Society for Law, Life and Religion, a pro-life student organization at Harvard Law School. It featured a debate between Kevin Eggan, a researcher in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, and David Prentice, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council. Following the debate, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) delivered a talk on the subject.

Eggan, who spoke first, provided some useful clarification about the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells and the research and clinical possibilities of each.

All stem cells, he said, possess two important properties – the ability to make identical copies of themselves and the ability to divide into other specialized types of cells. But while adult stem cells – those found in bone marrow, for example – have a limited ability to differentiate, embryonic stem cells can give rise to virtually any type of cell in the body.

“Adult stem cell research is important and must go forward,” Eggan said. But embryonic stem cell research, while at an earlier stage of development, shows a potential for scientific and clinical breakthroughs that adult stem cell research lacks.

Embryonic stem cells can be grown indefinitely in culture, while adult stem cells cannot. Because of this ability, scientists can use them as models to study a variety of different genetically transmitted diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes, and to screen drugs that might cure those illnesses.

In the future, it might also be possible to create stem cell lines that would carry the genes of a patient so that replacement cells could be transplanted that would not challenge the patient’s immune system. For example, stem cells could be coaxed into differentiating into dopamine-producing neurons to replace similar neurons destroyed by Parkinson’s disease.