Reasons to Believe

Embryonic Stem Cell Research - An Interview with Dr. Fazale ("Fuz") Rana

A collection of interview questions answered by Dr. Fazale ("Fuz") Rana

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Interview Questions

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

  1. What are stem cells?
  2. How are stem cells generated?
  3. Why are scientists so interested in stem cells? 
  4. Are you opposed to stem cell research?
  5. Why do you call embryonic stem cell research "sloppy science"?
  6. What are some of the problems with embryonic stem cells?
  7. Isn't the human embryo just a blob of cells?
  8. Aren't people who oppose stem cell research just right-wing ideologues standing in the way of scientific advance?
  9. Why aren't more scientists interested in adult stem cells?
  10. Are there other emerging technologies to treat diseases like type I diabetes that don't rely on stem cells?

Therapeutic Cloning vs. Reproductive Cloning

  1. What is therapeutic cloning?
  2. How does therapeutic cloning differ from reproductive cloning?
  3. You are opposed to therapeutic cloning but in favor of reproductive cloning. Why is that?
  4. Are therapeutic cloning and ESCR necessary?

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are associated with certain tissues in the human body. These cells serve as a source of replacement cells when a tissue's specialized cells die from disease or injury. Tissues that possess stem cells have the capacity to regenerate.

Not all tissues have stem cells associated with them. For example, when nervous, cardiac, and muscle tissues lose cells, they cannot regenerate because they lack stem cells. Instead, nonfunctional scar tissue replaces once-healthy functional tissue.

How are stem cells generated?

There are two sources of embryonic stem cells: embryos left over from in vitro fertilization and embryos produced by human cloning. To isolate embryonic stem cells, human embryos must be destroyed.

Adult stem cells come from tissues in the scalp, dental pulp, bone marrow, olfactory bulb, umbilical cord, and placenta.

Why are scientists so interested in stem cells?

Biomedical researchers hope that they can use stem cells to regenerate diseased and damaged tissue that otherwise could not regenerate on its own. They hope that by artificially introducing stem cells into damaged tissue, replacement cells will form, converting nonfunctional tissue into tissue with restored function.

Researchers are primarily interested in embryonic stem cells or blastomeres. These cells, found in the early embryo, possess the capacity to develop into the 200 or so cell types found in the human body.

Are you opposed to stem cell research?

I am not opposed to all stem cell research; I am opposed to embryonic stem cell research. I fully support adult stem cell research. In fact, I think that the federal government should fund adult stem cell research at "Manhattan Project" levels.

I am opposed to embryonic stem cell research because in order to isolate embryonic stem cells a human embryo has to be destroyed. I regard a human embryo as a human life.

The good news is that numerous new discoveries indicate that several types of adult stem cells behave like embryonic stem cells. Under laboratory conditions these adult stem cells can be coaxed to develop into a wide range of cell types that are suitable for use in tissue-replacement therapies.

Adult stem cells can be readily isolated from adult tissues. No human life is lost in the process of isolating adult stem cells.

Use of adult stem cells in tissue-replacement therapies has an added advantage. Use of adult stem cells as replacement cells does not suffer from some of the problems associated with the use of embryonic stem cells.

Why do you call embryonic stem cell research "sloppy science"?

From my perspective as a biochemist, sound scientific research rarely raises moral or ethical concerns. It's when the scientific community looks for a quick and easy way around a problem that ethical issues arise. This appears to be what has happened with embryonic stem cell research.

We often hear about the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research, but seldom, if ever, do we hear about the very real pitfalls associated with embryonic stem cells. These problems are so significant that they may be fatal flaws.

What are some of the problems with embryonic stem cells?

There are two main problems with use of embryonic stem cells in tissue-replacement therapy. First, when implanted into a tissue, embryonic stem cells tend to be tumorgenic. That is, they form tumors.

Also, rejection will occur if there is not a close genetic match between the embryonic stem cells and the patient receiving the stem cell implants. This problem is identical to the rejection that occurs in organ-transplant therapies when the organ of the donor doesn't match the recipient's genetic type.

Isn't the human embryo just a blob of cells?

No. Those "blobs of cells" are as much human beings as you or I. There is no scientific test that I could apply to the human embryo and get a result other than "It is human." Its DNA would indicate that it is a member of the human species and a unique individual.

Those "blobs of cells" are part of the normal life sequence that all human beings pass through. You and I were once "blobs of cells" just like the human embryo in its early stages. In fact, the grandmother suffering from Parkinson's disease and the young child experiencing the tragedy of type I diabetes were "blobs of cells" at one time too.

Aren't people who oppose stem cell research just right-wing ideologues standing in the way of scientific advance?

I would first point out that a high view of humanity, one that upholds the value, sanctity, and dignity of all human life, is not a right-wing ideology, but one of the principles upon which our nation was founded. This same ideal motivated slavery's end, women's suffrage, and the civil rights movement.

The debate about embryonic stem cell research is not science vs. religion. It's not an either-or situation. It's a win-win opportunity. With the advances in adult stem cell research, for example, we can develop treatments and therapies for many debilitating diseases and injuries without compromising the dignity of human life. This is one of the few instances in which we can "have our cake and eat it too."

Why aren't more scientists interested in adult stem cells?

An increasing number of biomedical researchers are focusing their efforts on adult stem cells. The number of papers published in scientific journals on adult stem cells and their potential as therapeutic agents is growing week by week.

It's important to keep in mind just how new and revolutionary the emerging ideas about adult stem cells are. Only a few years ago, the prevailing paradigm regarded adult stem cells as having limited development potential, restricted to only a few closely related cell types. It's only been in the last few years that the scientific community has come to realize that certain adult stem cells can behave in ways that are quite similar to embryonic stem cells. It simply will take time for this new paradigm to take hold in the scientific community. Unfortunately, the transition to the new paradigm has been slowed by the inability of researchers to reproduce some of the earliest studies on the developmental plasticity of adult stem cells.

There are also political factors at work as well. If restrictions are placed on embryonic stem cell research, then it's only logical to question the legitimacy of abortion. At the end of the day, the debate about embryonic stem cell research ultimately has bearing on the abortion-rights debate.

Are there other emerging technologies to treat diseases like type I diabetes that don't rely on stem cells?

Yes, there are numerous biomedical advances that can potentially lead to treatments for diseases like type I diabetes. These advances do not involve the use of either embryonic or adult stem cells. For example, new research indicates that the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas do not come from stem cells, but from pre-existing beta cells. This means that beta cells from a living donor or a cadaver could be used to culture beta cells. Once cultured, these beta cells could be implanted into a type I diabetes patient. A recent small-scale clinical study demonstrated the successful transfer of beta cells from a live donor to a type I diabetes patient. For a period of time after the cell transfer, the patient was able to go without insulin injections.

Therapeutic Cloning vs. Reproductive Cloning

What is therapeutic cloning?

Therapeutic cloning depends on a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). During this procedure, researchers remove the nucleus (which houses the genetic material) from a human egg cell and replace it with the nucleus from a human body cell. The outcome is similar to the fertilization process, in which the genetic material from a human sperm cell unites with an egg's genetic material. Once the nuclear transfer is completed, researchers artificially stimulate the egg cell to divide to form a developing embryo. The embryo is used to harvest embryonic stem cells (a procedure that destroys the embryo).

Therapeutic cloning is intimately connected with embryonic stem cell research. Researchers hope that by generating embryonic stem cells from clones, they can overcome a significant technical hurdle associated with the use of embryonic stem cells, namely the rejection of the embryonic stem cells by the recipient's body after these cells are implanted into diseased tissue. In therapeutic cloning, the intended recipient of the embryonic stem cells donates the genetic material to produce the human embryo clone. The stem cells derived from this clone will be compatible with the recipient's body (and therefore will not be rejected).

How does therapeutic cloning differ from reproductive cloning?

Both therapeutic and reproductive cloning utilize the same technique, called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). During this procedure, a human embryo is produced. If the embryo is implanted in the womb of a human surrogate (resulting in pregnancy and birth), the process is termed reproductive cloning. If an embryo is used to harvest embryonic stem cells (a procedure that destroys the embryo), the process is referred to as therapeutic cloning.

You are opposed to therapeutic cloning but in favor of reproductive cloning. Why is that?

For those who embrace a "culture of life," therapeutic cloning must be condemned. If any form of human cloning is to engender support, it is reproductive cloning, at least in principle. The goal of reproductive cloning is to create a human embryo that will be implanted in a womb with the intent that it will grow into a fully developed human being that will be granted every opportunity for life. In effect, human reproductive cloning is no different than in vitro fertilization. (From a practical standpoint, reproductive cloning is problematic. The cloning procedure is highly inefficient, and clones produced with current technology are unhealthy.)

On the other hand, the sole purpose of therapeutic cloning is to create a human embryo only to disassemble it for its 'parts' (embryonic stem cells).

Are therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research necessary?

No. Numerous new discoveries indicate that several types of adult stem cells behave like embryonic stem cells. Under laboratory conditions these adult stem cells can be coaxed to develop into a wide range of cell types that are suitable for use in tissue-replacement therapies.

Adult stem cells can be readily isolated from adult tissues. No human life is lost in the process of isolating adult stem cells.

Use of adult stem cells in tissue-replacement therapies has the added advantage of not suffering from some of the problems associated with use of embryonic stem cells.

Related Resources

For additional information about stem cell research, follow these links:

Subjects: Stem Cells/Cloning

Dr. Fazale Rana

In 1999, I left my position in R&D at a Fortune 500 company to join Reasons to Believe because I felt the most important thing I could do as a scientist is to communicate to skeptics and believers alike the powerful scientific evidence—evidence that is being uncovered day after day—for God’s existence and the reliability of Scripture. Read more about Dr. Fazale Rana