Home > genetics, legal issues, transhumanism > The Appeal of Stem Cells

The Appeal of Stem Cells

Okay, that was a terrible pun.

A few weeks ago, an appellate court overturned the ban on the testing of some human embryonic stem cells. The appellate court reasoned that the trial court analyzed one factor related to the permissibility of an injunction incorrectly when the trial court decided that a stay on stem cell research would not seriously affect researchers. The appellate court instead held that by enjoining research on stem cells, the researcher’s loss of staff jobs and loss of investments in research and equipment caused “certain and substantial” harm. In addition, the appellate court found that the trial court misapplied an amendment to the 2009 federal budget. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment, in addition to being tremendously fun to say, prevents the allotment of funds from fiscal year 2009 from being used to support either the creation or (somewhat more nuanced) destruction of human embryos for research. The Amendment does not, according to the appellate court, bar the allotment funds from fiscal year 2009 for research using embryonic stem cells obtained in other ways.

Now that the appellate court has ruled, the case will move back to the trial court for more arguments and a consistent verdict. which is not to say that the defendant researchers’ victory is assured, only that the verdict cannot contradict the findings of the appellate court. Whatever the ruling, I don’t think the issue will be particularly controversial going forward for two reasons.

First, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment only constrained funds for FY2009, and money from 2009 is unlikely to still be lurking about. However, any future budget could contain a similar amendment, in which case more suits would almost certainly challenge the use of that money for stem cell research.

Second, and more importantly, the need for embryonic stem cells seems to be declining, and the moral bickering that accompanies embryonic stem cell research seems largely absent from adult stem cell research.

Embryonic stem cells are valuable because they are “pluripotent,” which means that they can become any type of cell. At conception, two cells merge and from that comes the entire complexity of human beings. As people age, however, cells become more specialized and reproduce only the same kind of cell: this helps to ensure that we don’t grow an eyeball in our esophagus. Using some scientific magic, however, researchers have found a way to regress an adult cell back into a pluripotent cell that can then, with some additional tinkering, become whatever sort of cell scientists desire. Just yesterday, GEN reported that human liver cells derived from other adult cells suffered no loss of functionality as compared to embryonic stem cells when grafted onto mice. Importantly, the research showed no signs of tumor, and thus cancer, over the life of the experiment. Although more research needs to be done, it seems that the initial indications suggest embryonic stem cells will not be needed much longer.

Why use stem cells, embryonic or otherwise, at all? There are several excellent reasons. Because stem cells are pluripotent, they (and other cells regressed into that state) can rejuvenate already existing organs. Where an individual with severe heart problems now needs to wait for a donor and hope that the heart doesn’t trigger an adverse immune reaction, stem cells and created pluripotent cells offer the same individual the opportunity to get a heart made from their own cells. Because the heart will be created with the patient’s own cells, the patient’s body will not reject the new organ. Further, when adult cells can be reliably turned into whatever sort of cell is needed, the patient need only have enough cells excised from a convenient part of their body to create the new pluripotent cells – no one else need give up their heart, and the wait list experience could be more like ordering a custom car and less like hoping some poor sap with a compatible heart kicks the bucket. Plainly, stem cells save lives and reduce scarcity – two very important goals.

Potentially, the same effect could be obtained mechanically through an artificial heart rather than a heart created biologically from other cells. Despite that, there are excellent reasons for continuing stem cell research. For large organs, such mechanical replacement probably works out fine, although if the choice is available some people would probably prefer to remain (quasi)au-natural. Even for a large organ like skin, however, mechanical replacement can pose some problems. First, there are few synthetic skins available, and none of them are as good as human skin or have a proven ability to integrate with human skin. The closest that I’ve found is a synthetic skin designed for use with robots. This seems to be an all or nothing proposition, however: either all of the skin is replaced, or none of it is (if it can even work well on a human at all.) Even if a synthetic skin is invented that can integrate with human skin, it will need to look very much like human skin (and, particularly, the skin of the human to whom it is attached) to gain widespread acceptance: No one wants to look like a patchwork quilt if they can avoid it. For other types of cells; neurons and nervous system cells included, there is, as yet, no mechanical substitute.

Eventually mechanical engineering will overtake biological engineering. Cells have been created over millions of years through a painstakingly slow process with only a few dozen raw materials to choose from. Everything is carbon based because carbon is extremely adaptable. However, synthetic polymers, alloys, and substrates ought to provide many more choices in crafting future organs, and human experimentation means that changes that either are not conducive to survival (say, the purely cosmetic) and so not available via evolution, or else not made of materials to which evolution has access can be used to create organs with features designed by and for the user. It’s very nice (and much appreciated) that our skin holds our insides in and provides us with tactile sensory information, but wouldn’t it be nice if it was more resistant to wear (with, say, properties similar to Kevlar) or could maintain its shape without suffering for cellular decay and loss of elasticity that leads to wrinkles? Perhaps we could imbue skin biologically with chameleon-like qualities, but wouldn’t it be better if skin could displace light entirely, or if we could moderate pain sensations in a modular way, such that a cut that has been noticed could stop hurting while we repair it? People will largely choose mechanical engineering over biology for the same reasons that people use hearing aids and contact lenses: more functionality is better.

The benefits of mechanical engineering aside, biological engineering is largely more attainable at the moment. Even if mechanical engineering was up to par, because some people will choose to remain quasi-natural (i.e., biological) instead of becoming a hybrid or a fully mechanical being. For that reason alone, stem cell research is worth pursuing: more options are always better.

On deck for Monday: Mechanical Cars.

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