Thursday, May 10, 2007

Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Call it what it is!

By Yvonne Perry

Doctors and researchers are mislabeling their own product when they refer to fertilized eggs (zygotes and blastocysts) as embryos. The media is simply repeating this misnomer and fueling the flames of moral argument. Yes, these in-vitro cells are within the first two-month stage of development that is covered by the term “embryonic”; however, these fertilized eggs are not going to develop into embryos until after conception occurs. Conception can only occur in a uterus, not in a laboratory.

There are a number of better choices for terminology when referring to undifferentiated stem cells. It might be helpful to call the cells what they are: “blastocyst stem cells” or “in-vitro derived stem cells”. Both of these are fitting terms, which would not be as likely to raise the hackles of those who assume that a human being is automatically formed when eggs are fertilized in-vitro. History shows that religious ideological wars in America are not quickly or easily resolved. I doubt there is a way to truly “win” the political and religious wars over stem cell research. There are some ways to circumvent some of the hostility on both sides of the issues. By providing factual information and using common sense, we can come to an agreement to take action that is in the best interest of the most people.

I’m not going to argue about the terminology here. Instead, I want to show you two reasons why a blastocyst is not being harmed in the research process.

1. Biologists can take a single cell from a blastocyst, study the DNA (pre-implantation genetics) and determine its health and other characteristics without harming it. In pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, one cell is removed from an 8- to 16-cell blastocyst for testing purposes. It is allowed to multiply/divide overnight. One of the three new cells is examined the next morning. If it is free of the diseased gene, the rest of the blastocyst is introduced to a uterus at the correct time of the menstrual cycle. If the blastocyst implants itself successfully, a pregnancy will occur and further development will produce a healthy baby. Since the fertilized egg is not harmed in this process, this knowledge should remove the moral issue associated with the study of in-vitro blastocysts.

2. Scientists will not always need new blastocysts to work with. In fact, the remaining two cells mentioned above that were grown for examination purposes can be used to create new stem cell lines. Presently, these new lines would not be eligible for the NIH registry for federal funding since they were created after the August 2001 cut off imposed by the Bush administration.

Thanks to a therapeutic cloning method known as SCNT, scientists are able to duplicate existing cells for research purposes. SCNT requires no fertilization. Instead, an electrical current is used to “jump start” the process of cell division.

Senate bill 5, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act was passed on April 11, 2007 by a vote of 63 to 37. The purpose of the bill is to relax current policy and allow leftover blastocysts to be used for scientific research regardless of the date they were derived. Unfortunately the Senate did not raise the two-thirds majority of 67 votes needed to override a probable veto by President Bush. Another bill also passed attempting to outlaw SCNT and even impose a fine for those who attempt it.

Information such the above will be available in a book titled Right to Recover: Winning the Political and Religious Wars over Stem Cell Research in America set to be published by Nightengale Press in October 2007. To learn about stem cell research or read more about this book, please visit

Yvonne Perry is a freelance writer and editor who assists clients with any type of writing project. She is the owner of Write On! Creative Writing Services based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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