By Stacy Beller Stryer, M.D.
I vividly remember my firsts in medical school – my first patient with cystic fibrosis who was so air hungry that he couldn’t even speak, my first teen who was constantly admitted to the hospital with an infection due to a genetic disorder that would eventually kill him, and my first 3 year-old patient with sickle cell anemia who almost died because her spleen decided to sequester many of her red cells. They were my firsts, but they certainly won’t be my lasts.
On March 9th, however, President Obama took a major step toward helping these children and so many others just like them. It gives me hope that someday there will be a few lasts. On Monday, he signed an executive order which relaxed restrictions on embryonic stem cell research and allowed federal funding for such projects. This is big. It reverses an almost 8 year policy that severely restricted such funding and the ability to use embryonic stem cells.
Embryonic stem cell research will open up the doors for potential cures and treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and for traumatic injuries, such as those that involve the brain and spinal cord. But the potential benefit of stem cells isn’t just for adults. Discoveries from embryonic stem cell research could save many lives and significantly reduce the suffering of children with a whole variety of diseases. Many medical centers, such as the University of Cincinnati, are or will soon be greatly expanding their stem cell research programs because of this policy change.
Why are embryonic stem cells so important for research? These cells are truly amazing because they have the ability to turn into any other cell in the body, such as blood cells, nerve cells, islet cells (which make insulin in the pancreas), or even entire organs. Plus, these cells can continue to duplicate, or make more of themselves, which is wonderful for both research and eventual treatment. Think about a newborn, that starts out as a single cell which then continues to replicate and differentiate until it becomes a fetus. It is truly a miracle and is the reason embryonic stem cells are so important.
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati want, through new research, to successfully treat fatal and other serious genetic disorders. Other medical centers will use embryonic stem cells to search for treatments for illnesses such as cancer, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, and traumatic injury. The list goes on and on. Results will not occur overnight. It will be a long, expensive time intensive process. Through this process, researchers hope to learn how cells differentiate into specific types of cells and how genes turn certain cells on and off. The ultimate goal is to successfully repair or even replace ineffective, damaged and abnormal cells.
Some people are against the use of embryonic stem cells in research and treatment because they believe that, even though it can save lives, it also ends a life. This is an issue everybody has to think about on a personal and individual level. Currently, federal guidelines require embryo stem cells to come from extra embryos that were made when a couple underwent in vitro fertilization but were not used and, if not used for research, would simply be thrown away.