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Stem-cell research: Superman championed a life-saving cause

by Joy Kikuchi, Sci. & Env. editor

 

In the weeks surrounding the passing of well-known actor Christopher Reeve, the issue of stem cell research has been brought to the fore of the political forum. It is but one of the thorns in the side of the Bush campaign this election year. Reeve was an advocate for embryonic stem cell research, and it is likely that with financial backing from the government, this research could have helped him stand again.

 

Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down following a riding accident in 1995. Although he was unable to walk, he still remained a hero by becoming the prominent face and voice to urging a cure for paralysis, lobbying Congress to support embryonic stem cell research.

Reeve truly was Superman to others who suffered from paralysis, bringing them hope when they previously had none. Early stem cell research was promising, but not advanced enough to guarantee any major breakthroughs. Stem cell research was set back even more in 2001, when President Bush restricted federally funded research.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Web site, stem cell research started as a way to advance knowledge of how organisms develop from a single cell. Scientists are now researching the potential of stem cells in regenerative and reparative medicine.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that “renew themselves over long periods of time through cell division.” They may also be either adult cells or embryonic cells that can be programmed for certain functions through exposure to experimental or physiological conditions.

While some are derived from umbilical cords, most embryonic stem cells are derived from human embryos that are created through in vitro fertilization in a lab.

Four to five days after the fertilization, the embryo forms a hollow ball of cells, called a blastocyst.

The cells are removed from the inner cell mass, a mass of approximately 30 cells near the end of the inside of the blastocyst. These cells are then cultured in the lab, and can be left undifferentiated or be cultivated into certain kinds of cells through exposure to certain laboratory conditions.

Specially differentiated cells cultivated in the lab can then be transplanted into patients for the treatment of numerous diseases and paralysis. Some of the diseases that stem cells could possibly cure are: Parkinson’s disease (Michael J. Fox is also a supporter of stem cell research), diabetes, blood disease, heart disease, and even cancer.

Recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, authorized $3 million of state funding to support stem cell research.

Paralysis like Reeve’s is just one of the conditions that embryonic stem cells could possibly cure. Stem cells have been successfully programmed into spinal-cord tissue, according to the Oct. 25 issue of Newsweek. These cells could then be implanted in paralysis victims. The implanted cells would then repair and replace the damaged tissue, restore movement and feeling, and allow the person to walk again.

The controversy arises because some people believe embryos are human beings—despite the fact they are not implanted in a human womb and expected to be born. The embryos used to cultivate stem cells are created from a surplus of frozen zygotes (sperm and egg cells), with the permission of the donors. Currently, there are tens of thousands of surplus embryos across the country, just taking up space in freezers instead of saving lives.

Embryonic stem cell research should not be considered a controversial topic when it comes down to saving lives. Each of us might one day find ourselves with a condition that can be treated with the use of stem cells. Reeve remained a superhero until the end, through championing a cause that could save numerous people. In his memory, we should all support the cause he fought so hard for. Election Day is here, use your voting power to speak out to politicians and make sure that Reeve’s work lives on.

For more information on stem cell research and how you can help, visit: stemcells.nih.gov. For more information about Christopher Reeve, visit the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation (CRPF) at www.christopherreeve.org.

 

 

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