What Is a Stem Cell?

Published September 1, 2001

Take out your pencils for a pop quiz: What’s a stem cell?

We bet most Americans—the majority of whom will have an opinion on stem cell research—can’t answer that question.

While dueling political pundits sound off “Yea” or “Nay” on the question of government funding for embryonic stem-cell research, we fear everyone’s missing some basic questions at the heart of the debate. We’d like to use our space this month to turn down the volume and examine the facts.

What’s a Cell?

First off, what in the world are human “stem cells”? For that matter, what are cells?

Biological cells are tiny, tiny living building blocks that make up larger living things, including our own bodies. They are so tiny that our body is made up of trillions of cells.

Most cells have a primary job: Skin cells protect more delicate parts of the body underneath, red blood cells carry oxygen to all parts of the body, and brain motor cells send signals carried over nerve cells to muscle cells that cause our fingers to type these words.

Stem cells are different. They can divide and differentiate, turning into many kinds of cells.

For example, millions of blood cells are released into the blood stream every second, divided off from the stem cells inside the bone marrow. Our bodies need these millions of blood cells every second to replace the millions recycled by the body every second. In another example, the cells lining your guts and digesting that bagel you ate this morning live only about three days before being recycled. Blood-and-gut stem cells keep dividing to produce these cells.

A Research Bonanza

Because of the way they work, stem cells are intensely interesting to medical scientists; these cells might provide clues for curing or treating disease. Much like the cavalry riding in to save the day, your body’s own stem cells can quickly fill in the gaps when derivative cell types are needed. Scientists hope they can figure out how to make stem cells do that job even better, so they can be used to restore health in people with diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes.

Scientists have been doing adult stem cell research for a decade; the experimental use of embryonic cells started in 1998. But the most progress and most promising treatments so far have come from research on adult stem cells, not embryonic ones. At this time, hopes for possible cures from embryonic stem cells are still science fiction.

Many private companies are already working with stem cells, including embryonic stem cells. Even if President Bush hadn’t given the green light to government funding of that research, such exploration would continue.

There are some practical reasons for the government to keep its red-tape encrusted mitts off embryonic stem cell research. Government-funded research is subject to the winds of political change and establishment thinking; cutting-edge ideas have a more difficult time getting money than do older and safer ideas. At the same time, trillions of taxpayers’ dollars have simply disappeared, without a trace, down bureaucratic and research rat holes.

A Matter for Philosophers

All of the heat, smoke, and light generated by the current debate leads us to believe the issue is basically a matter of philosophy or religion: Is a human being destroyed to produce embryonic stem cells?

Supporters of embryonic stem cell research say the embryos used are left over from fertility treatments and would be destroyed anyway. Opponents challenge the practices that produce these “out of body” embryos in the first place. Both positions are based on strongly held beliefs about when human life begins.

But black-and-white arguments often turn gray when you or a loved one are waiting for a cure. Even some who say human embryos shouldn’t be sacrificed to harvest stem cells respond differently when offered hope of a cure for a loved one.

Many of the politicians and commentators on the question have become instant experts, usually relying on their own view of how the world works and what’s important. Many also demean the position of people with views different than their own.

Science writer and commentator Michael Fumento warns, “People are scared. Rightly or wrongly, use of embryonic cells invokes visions of Dr. Josef Mengele and a terrifying slippery slope towards playing around with human life.”

Time to Separate Religion and State

Ultimately, it seems the debate is not so much between science versus religion, but between conflicting religious—or if you prefer, “belief”—systems. These conflicts may never be reconciled.

If Congress decides to get involved in funding stem cell research, looking for and using adult stem cells would be the practical and pragmatic direction for government-sponsored research to take. But they should probably stay out of the embryonic stem cell research business . . . before new centuries of religious wars break out.

Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., writes extensively on medical, legal, disability, and mental health reform. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Glueck and Cihak write a weekly column for WorldNetDaily and regular contributions for Health Care News.