New group argues for embryonic stem cell research

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN

Published September 21, 2006

In the race for medical cures and advances, scientists are discovering the potential for stem cells to provide the solutions for what were once thought of as incurable diseases.

Steven Neff
Medical student Mark Kiel conducts stem cell research at the Morrison Lab in the Life Sciences Institute yesterday. (JEREMY CHO/Daily)

Current legislation may leave the state of Michigan gasping in the dust, a new group is arguing.

With the support of Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Congressman Joe Schwarz (R--Battle Creek), Michigan Citizens for Stem Cell Research and Cures emerged on the public scene Monday at kick-off events in Detroit and Lansing.

"Michigan is way behind," said Schwarz, a supporter of the research. "We have archaic laws which prevent us from doing research on embryonic stem cells."

Since scientists first isolated embryonic stem cells in 1998, controversy has arisen over their use in medical research.

While states like California, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut are currently using taxpayer money to fund research on embryonic stem cells, other states do not.

Benefits include treatment and cures for debilitating diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes and brain cancer.

Opponents of the research say by killing an embryo, it ends a human life.

Currently, Michigan laws regarding stem cell research are among the most restrictive in the nation, going beyond even federal regulations endorsed by the Bush administration.

"The only other state with restrictions as severe is South Dakota," said Sean Morrison, who leads the University's Center for Stem Cell Biology and is on the new group's board of directors.

Morrison's enthusiasm for spreading the word about stem cells was aroused this June when Republicans in the state House announced a bill that they claimed would allow stem cell research to flourish by establishing an umbilical-cord cell bank. But Morrison said the Republicans' statements were inaccurate. He said umbilical cord research is limiting, as umbilical cord cells can only replace blood-forming cells, while stem cells can replace any tissue.

"That bill and the press release in support of it demonstrate the extent to which people are putting out misinformation on the stem cell issue," Morrison said.

Schwarz, who lost the Republican primary last month to an opponent who does not favor stem cell research, echoed Morrison's critique of the bill.

"This is a classic example of people who don't understand the science, saying adult and umbilical are as good as embryonic," he said.

Scientists say other types of stem cells do not have the same potential to advance medical research as embryonic cells do.

Embryonic stem cells are said to have pluripotentiality, or the potential to grow into any one of the more than 200 types of tissue in the human body.

When a sperm fertilizes a human egg and the resulting zygote divides for four to five days, the product is a layered bundle of cells called a blastocyst.

Stem cells are found in the innermost core of the bundle.

The cells used in research are obtained from embryos formed in a laboratory, usually for the purpose of reproductive therapy.

If the egg were fertilized in a human womb, the stem cells would eventually grow into the body's different organs and tissues according to cellular signals.

Researchers are trying to create artificial environments that mimic these cellular signals. Depending on the environment, an embryonic stem cell could be coaxed into becoming any specified type of cell needed for medical treatment.

Umbilical and adult stem cells cannot.

Morrison, who researches umbilical stem cells, said they "have only been shown to be useful for producing blood cells."

Adult stem cells are also limited in potential.

"Each type of adult stem cell is specialized, generally only making cells from its tissue of origin," Morrison said.

Currently, the only stem cells permitted for use in the state of Michigan are those that were obtained from outside the state before August of 2001, when prohibitive laws were enacted.

Although the laws are intended to protect human embryos, the state Legislature has raised no contention with fertility clinics routinely discarding embryos by the thousand.

"It doesn't make sense to defend the Michigan law based on the premise of protecting human embryos because the law has no effect on the number of embryos that are destroyed," Morrison said. "It only delays medical research that thousands of Michiganians believe represents their best hope."

The new group will address these points of contention, Schwarz said.

Unlike the political lobbying groups that aim to directly influence votes for specific pieces of legislation or political petitions, the new group is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded to educate, Schwarz said.

Like Morrison, who finds it unfortunate that "there are some people in our state who don't want our laws to be based on the facts," Schwarz said he hopes that learning about the benefits of stem cell research will prompt Michigan residents to demand the legislature rescind laws that make it impossible for stem cell research to progress.

He said a few people's personal objections should not be allowed to hinder research that could have far-reaching benefits.

"If people choose to not participate in therapy, that's their business," he said. "But they do not have the right to keep the rest of us from it."