Harnessing the Power of Creation
The politics of stem cells
Advances spark birth of hope, controversy: (10/24/04) Alana Saarinen is an adorable, curious, shy, clever, devilish, affectionate girl. In short, a normal 3-year-old. She may also be entirely new to biology. She may carry DNA from three people. The cheerful girl in pigtails was born of her parents' fifth attempt at in vitro fertilization -- the meeting of sperm and egg in a laboratory dish, the "birthplace" of more than 1 million children worldwide in the last 26 years. But Alana is more than a much-treasured personal victory over infertility -- long and painfully fought -- for Paul and Sharon Saarinen of West Bloomfield, Mich. She represents a revolution born of the human embryo.
Research probes problems among test-tube offspring: (10/24/04) Mice do not yearn for wide open spaces. What mice want are cozy, dark tunnels. That sense of shelter. A comfy assurance that nothing can swoop down from the sky and turn them into appetizers. Then there are Richard Schultz's mice. The males among them exhibit an uncommon comfort in the great outdoors. Such boldness is utterly unmouselike. Mr. Schultz, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, developed these mice in an unusual manner. He allowed their embryos to live outside the womb for a few days. The little embryos grew in a brew of nutrients similar to what a human embryo might experience during in vitro fertilization. Then he put the embryos into mom, and let nature proceed. In most ways, these mice were like any others. They grew normally, grasped objects normally, they balanced on sticks with relative ease -- anything an average mouse might do, they did too.
Presidential candidates air views on stem cells: (10/24/04) The science of the human embryo is a focus of this year's presidential campaign in the argument over stem cells. In 2001, President Bush lifted the complete ban on all research that destroys the embryo, announcing he would allow government money to be used in the study of human embryonic stem cells created before Aug. 9, 2001. These cells are harvested from 100-cell human embryos. Many researchers have argued that the 22 stem cell lines this decision made available to American scientists are inadequate to aid the search for cures to diseases such as Parkinson's and macular degeneration.
Stem cells breeding super-sized hope, large-scale concern: (10/25/04) These rats can run. Run, rats, run. It's not graceful movement. Not even for a rat. But it keeps them going in ways their compatriots in a nearby cage cannot match. Those rats are lame, butt-dragging, disabled -- as the running rats were not too long ago. Both groups were precisely injured. The damage to their spinal columns mimicked a kind of injury common in humans. Then, a week later, some of the rats received an injection of special cells, cells made from human embryonic stem cells. Those rats run. In 2006, say the researchers who made the lame rats walk, the same treatment will be tried in humans with recent spinal cord injury. The hope is to make injured men and women walk again too.
Status of embryo fuels heated debate: (10/25/04) The tiny fists. The sleepy, swollen eyes. The infant floating dreamily in an amniotic sea. Is this where human embryonic stem cells come from? No. Not at all. But some who are fighting any expansion of stem cell research evoke just that image. This is the ethical heart of every debate over the treatment of human embryos, whether it's about their dissection to create stem cells, their destruction in fertility clinics, or their manufacture in a laboratory from an egg that's been tricked: Is this diminutive soccer-ball of cells, smaller than a pinhead, without limbs, or nerves, or even blood vessels, a human being?
Embryo screening opens window of hope: (10/25/04) The box felt empty. Still, its presence on the floor of the backseat weighed on Jennifer and Joe Makhlouf with the heft of a planet. The Lambertville couple drove to Chicago with this strange little container in their care. They could hardly bear to touch it. Inside the lunchbox-sized incubator were two tiny embryos. Since the 1980s, researchers have sought a way to predict the genetic health of embryos before they're put in a woman's womb. The Makhloufs are among hundreds of couples taking advantage of testing that they hoped would save them the grief of another miscarriage. But the technique, called preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, is fraught with controversy. Some criticize its accuracy. Some worry about what happens when one or two cells of an eight-cell embryo are removed for analysis. And others worry about the morality of choosing a child based on the genes he possesses.
The cloning wars: Who'll win the race to refine science?: (10/26/04) If science is a contest -- and it can sound like that sometimes -- then South Korea won a gold medal in February when a research team there became the first to clone human embryos and derive a stem cell line from one of them. The event focused anxieties for two dissimilar groups: American scientists who fear becoming a second-rate power in stem cell research, and those horrified by cloning itself. Among cloning opponents, the February announcement sent shivers of imminent danger. It marked an advance on the slippery slope to reproductive cloning -- cloning to make babies. In fact, for cloning adversaries, the difference between the stem cell cloning performed in South Korea and reproductive cloning is immaterial.
Cloned baby claim sets lawyer on path of stem-cell advocacy: (10/26/04) If this were a fictional account of human cloning, a character like Bernard Siegel’s would be just too unlikely. In December, 2002, Mr. Siegel was practicing personal injury law in Coral Gables, Fla. Before that, he had a sports agency business. He was the owner of Florida Championship Wrestling for awhile. He’s worked in family law, dealing with parental kidnapping. Then he owned the Miami Tropics, a minor-league basketball team. So he’s not exactly the guy you pick to lead an international campaign to support science. Maybe this whole chapter in human cloning ought to be in a novel. Plot summary: Florida lawyer takes on a UFO cult and ends up leading a high-powered crusade to protect the science of human stem cells before the United Nations.
TERMS TO KNOW:
Adult stem cell: A cell found in adult tissue, umbilical cord blood, or fetal tissue, which can reproduce itself indefinitely, and has the natural capacity to develop into a limited number of more mature cell types. For instance, blood stem cells can turn into red and white blood cells.
Animal Model: Using an animal, often a mouse or a rat, to test new drugs, study new ideas, or try new techniques.
Assisted Reproduction Technology: Any method of fertilization of the egg by a sperm that takes place outside the body.
ATP: Adenosine triphosphate, fuel that cells run on.
Cell Culture System: A collection of living cells grown in laboratory dishes. Scientists can use these to test new drugs or scientific methods.
Cloning: The technique by which an adult cell nucleus is put into an egg from which the nucleus has been removed. The egg reprograms the adult cell so that the egg will begin dividing as an embryo. The embryo created by this process is genetically identical to the adult cell nucleus.
Differentiation: The process by which a stem cell, which can turn into anything, loses that potential by developing into a specific type of cell.
Embryo: A fertilized egg that undergoes division, and that can develop into a fetus.
Embryonic stem cells: A cell taken from an early embryo of 100-150 cells. These cells have unlimited ability to reproduce themselves, and the potential to make any cell in the human body.
Enzyme: A protein that speeds up chemical processes in the cell.
Gene Imprinting: We inherit two copies of every gene, one from our father, and one from our mother. But for some genes, only the maternal gene is supposed to be turned on. In other genes, only the paternal gene should be operating. Imprinting disorders develop when both copies of these genes are turned on, or when both are turned off.
Gene therapy: The repair of faulty genes.
Inner cell mass: A bundle of cells inside an embryo of 100 to 150 cells that will develop into a fetus if the embryo is implanted in the uterus. The inner cell mass is the source of embryonic stem cells.
Immune System: The system that protects the body from foreign substances, cells, and tissues. It includes the thymus, spleen, and lymph nodes as well as antibodies, B-cells, and T-cells.
Mitochondrial DNA: Rings of DNA within the mitochondria that control mitochondria function. Mitochondria is inherited only from the mother.
Multiple sclerosis: A progressive disease that robs nerve cells of their insulating layer of myelin. Without this fatty insulation, the nerves cannot conduct signals. Symptoms can include loss of sensation, cognitive problems, bladder dysfunction, dizziness, fatigue, balance problems, and impaired vision.
Myelin: An insulating layer that surrounds the nerve that allows signals to travel along it.
Micropipette: A very thin tube used to manipulate the egg or embryo.
Nucleus: A component of the cell that contains DNA and controls growth and reproduction.
Oligodendrocytes: Cells that make myelin and maintain it.
Petri dish: A shallow, round glass or plastic dish used in laboratories to grow everything from bacteria to embryos.
Programmed cell death: A sort of suicide program that a cell puts into action when it is not needed, or when it is overwhelmed with genetic mistakes.
Raelians: A group of people who believe scientists from outer space created all life on Earth through cloning. They are led by Rael, a former French journalist. Members of this movement claim to be cloning human beings, although they’ve produced no proof to support their claims.
Stem Cell: A cell with an unlimited ability to reproduce itself and make more mature cell types. If the cell is an Embryonic Stem Cell, it comes from an early embryo of about 100-150 cells. It can make any cell in the human body. If the cell is an Adult Stem Cell, it can come from a fetus, from umbilical cord blood, or from adult tissue. While these cells all can turn into more mature cell types — for instance, blood stem cells can become red and white blood cells — it is debated how good these more mature stem cells are at becoming other cell types: can a blood stem cell turn into neural cells, for instance.
Stem cell line: A collection of stem cells derived from the same source. All cells in a single cell line are genetically identical.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jenni Laidman became The Blade’s science writer in 1998 after working as a science writer for the Bay City (Mich.) Times.
In her career at The Blade, she has followed the lives of cancer patients hoping for a cure from experimental research, and she traveled to Africa to learn about the slaughter of monkeys and gorillas for food , and she has written about doctors selling magnets as medical therapies.
Ms. Laidman has received numerous awards for her work, including a science writing award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1997, and publication of her work in Best Newspaper Writing 2000.
In 1995-96, she was awarded a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She lives in Toledo with her husband, Joey Harrison, a Blade copy editor.