medical research in the United States. Specifically it will discuss stem cell research and its relationship to ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). Stem cell research, although highly debated in the U.S., should be made available in the country to enhance the quality of life by providing research, government funding, and quality physicians.
Just what exactly is stem cell research? Stem cell research is one of the fastest growing areas of medicine, because it holds so much potential for medical breakthroughs. One doctor said, "It is not unrealistic to say that stem cell research has the potential to revolutionize the practice of medicine. -- Dr. Harold Varmus, former NIH director" (Best & Kellner, 2004, p. 214). Basically, stem cells can be reproduced in the laboratory, and these stem cells can be used to help fight a variety of diseases, as well as understand how diseases affect the human body and how cells reproduce and change. Stem cells themselves are basic body cells. Authors Best & Kellner note, "Stem cells are the primitive master cells of the body that differentiate into functions like skin, bone, nerve, and brain cells (the body produces over 200 cell types)" (Best & Kellner, 2004, p. 215). These master cells come from several sources, and that is where much of the controversy surrounding stem cell research begins.
Why is stem cell research so controversial? The main reason the process is so controversial is because of where researchers obtain the cells they need for research. Many come from the frozen embryos of fetuses that were aborted, or were created in the lab. The Bush Administration has effectively banned funding for this type of stem cell research, and many religious groups are against it too, for moral and ethical reasons. Many people believe that it is a right-to-life issue, and that embryos, no matter how they are obtained, should not be used. Authors Best & Kellner continue, "The Pope and critics of stem cell research argue that once a sperm and egg are mixed into an embryo, no matter what the medium, there is a human life with all of its rights and sacredness" (Best & Kellner, 2004, p. 216). This really comes down to the same debate that people argue over in abortion -- when does life begin? Proponents of stem cell research argue that human life does not begin until the brain and spinal cord form, about 14 days into the life of an embryo, and stem cells are usually taken from embryos younger than this. Opponents of the research argue that life begins at conception, even if it is in a Petri dish in the laboratory. In addition to the embryo concerns, many people believe that stem cell research could lead to human cloning, and there are few people who approve of this procedure. Thus, the entire debate is controversial and contentious, and it is one of the biggest hurdles that stem cell research has to get over to continue and grow.
There is a problem with the controversy surrounding stem cell research. Much of it is based on misunderstanding by the public. They believe that human embryos are the main source of stem cells. They do not understand that scientists can grow embryos in the laboratory, and that the stem cells can also be cloned, or recreated. In addition, adult stem cells that come from bone marrow, fat, blood, and other tissues, can also be used in stem cell research. Therefore, stem cells do not necessarily have to come from embryos, they can come from other areas as well, and research shows that adult stem cells react almost exactly the same as embryonic stem cells in most situations (Best & Kellner, 2004, p. 215). However, there are some situations where embryonic stem cells offer advantages.
There are many advantages to funding stem cell research right now. First, costs always increase, and the longer scientists wait, the more expensive it will become. Most large companies will not fund the research on their own, and so, any research being done is by smaller research organizations, which may run out of funding before their research is completed. That means research will simply take that much longer, and valuable time may be wasted. Writer David Magnus notes, "It places the research in the hands of companies that have no products to sell and whose only assets are represented by the intellectual property they can claim, which may encourage those companies to hype spurious work to help attract needed venture capital" (Magnus, 2004). This could be dangerous to all Americans in the end, if the research is shoddy or questionable. Another very compelling reason for government-sponsored research is that the government could increase control over the research, which could ensure higher quality research and development, rather than under-funded research at smaller companies where results could be questionable.
There is another advantage to stem cell research and funding now. If scientists can understand the potential of stem cells through discovery and research, people might be able to live longer and happier lives. For example, a person's stem cells could be harvested shortly after they are born, and then saved in case they were needed later to treat diseases or illnesses. Stem cells could even recreate lost limbs and organs (Best & Kellner, 2004, p. 215-216). It seems that the possibilities for stem cell use are perhaps endless. Studies have not been done on humans yet, but in many other experiments, stem cells have been shown to "produce insulin, induce growth of brain cells, and form new blood vessels in hearts, thereby suggesting immense contributions to curing diabetes, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, and heart disease" (Best & Kellner, 2004, p. 216). The longer the country waits to approve research and development, the more lives will be lost.
Many doctors, scientists, and researchers believe in the benefit of continued stem cell research. Many Republicans support it even if the Bush Administration does not. For example, Senator Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, "Because both embryonic and adult stem cell research may contribute to significant medical and health advancement, research on both should be federally funded within a carefully regulated, fully transparent framework that ensures respect for the moral significance of the human embryo" (Best & Kellner, 2004, p. 215). Frist is the only Medical Doctor in the Senate, and so he understands the implications of stem cell research as well as the many contributions it could make to medicine and overall health.
That is one of the reasons the government should encourage stem cell research. With continued research, eventually, researchers and doctors will understand how stem cells can effectively be used to treat a variety of illnesses, and the research will lead to saving lives and finding cures for some of the world's most devastating fatal diseases. The government could also help ensure research is of the highest quality and will give the best overall results. It is important for medical research to continue and grow, because the world has always depended on valuable medical research to help cure a variety of devastating diseases, such as polio and yellow fever. Government-sponsored funding can also help ensure that the best doctors use the research in their own practices. That will give the American people more control over their health care and their lives. Good research can create better doctors by giving them more choices to treat their patients.
How does stem cell research apply to devastating and fatal diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also sometimes known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease?" The disease killed the legendary ballplayer at the age of 35 in 1941. Diseases like ALS attack brain cells and spinal cells so that the cells (motor neurons) cannot communicate with the muscles. Writer Harold Hopkins notes, "What we do know is that ALS generally affects the nerves leading from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord and brain stem to the muscles, resulting in a progressive weakening and wasting of those muscles [ ... ]" (Hopkins, 1984). Eventually, the muscles degenerate, the body degenerates and the sufferer becomes paralyzed, and ultimately dies. Worst, there is no cure for the disease, and doctors do not really even know exactly what causes it. Some types attack brain neurons, while other types attack spinal cord neurons. It usually hits a person between the ages of 40 and 70, and it attacks more men than women. It can be hereditary, but not always (Hopkins, 1984). It is a devastating disease, and there still is no hope for cure. That is why it is so important to continue research into treatments like stem cell research, because there are still so many diseases like ALS that are not understood or curable.
Stem cells show some promise in treating ALS by helping to regenerate the motor neurons that stop sending messages to the muscles. Dr. Lucie Bruijn, an ALS expert writes, "what may have appeared to be impossible several years ago and of particular…