The Great Embryonic Stem Cell Debate

Neuroscience and Neurology CategoryPerry Cross, a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, traveled to India to receive daily injections of stem cells. He claims that, owing to the stem cell treatment, he is now able to breathe on his own for the first time since a rugby injury made him a quadriplegic 14 years ago. The breakthrough is likely to fire up the stem cell debate once again.

There are no approved treatments or human trials in the U.S. using embryonic stem cells, thus the need for Cross and his team of care workers to travel to India, where the controversial Dr. Geeta Shroff operates two hospitals. In India, embryonic stem cell treatment is allowed for patients who are terminal or who have incurable conditions. Perry Cross is not her first international patient. Patients come to Dr. Shroff from countries where embryonic stem cell research is strictly controlled, countries such as the U.S., Australia, and Britain.

Human Embryo at Seventh WeekThe debate over stem cell research has raged since scientists first postulated that embryonic stem cells, because of their ability to differentiate, could potentially be used to treat a myriad of conditions, from paralysis to brain damage to diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s. Well-known public figures have added their voices to the debate (Christopher Reeves, Michael J. Fox).

The crux of the stem cell debate is that using the stem cells means destruction of the embryo. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research raise several moral and ethical objections. The meat and potatoes of their arguments are the same arguments that have divided people on the abortion issue; namely, when does life begin? Those who are against stem cell research using human embryos revere human life and believe that conception is when life begins, therefore using embryos for research or treatment is tantamount to murder. They raise the point that research should be directed towards adult stem cell research (as do the researchers who are studying adult stem cells). Studies have shown that embryonic stem cells can create tumors, and that cells that are created for therapeutic cloning may cause rejection.

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research argue that life begins only when a heart beat or brain activity can be detected. They argue that abortion is now legal in several states and countries and the “by-products” would be wasted, therefore they should be used for stem cell research. A similar argument is that, through the science of in-vitro fertilization, many embryos are created that must later be stored or destroyed. These embryos could be used (with permission) for research. Proponents raise the issue that the benefits of stem cell research to mankind outweigh the “cost.”

Dr. Shroff has many detractors in the science community. She has not published any results of her work and also has a patent pending. Other scientists have raised concerns that, because she does not publish her work, it is difficult to know if her treatments will have any lasting effect or, worse, adverse effects. She has been accused of using patients as guinea pigs.

If more patients, like Perry Cross, advertise success with embryonic cell treatments, it is likely that there will be an increased clamor for a relaxation of the laws in countries that strictly control such research.

Perry Cross is a happy guinea pig.

Even if I managed to move a finger or one hand, it would be worth it.


Australian Quadriplegic Thanks Maverick Indian Stem Cell Doctor for Ability to Breathe. May 27, 2008.

Jennifer Bunn, RN

Jennifer Bunn, RN, is a registered nurse who has been practicing for over 15 years.
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