The actor Christopher Reeve who was paralysed in a riding accident in 1995 died of heart failure in hospital in New York on Monday the 11th of October 2004, at the age of 52. Reeve had become famous for his role, as Superman ‘it was a role that defined his career’, (Barry Norman, 2004. ) However, since his accident and his following paralysis he had become well known for his support for stem cell research. In the following I shall be exploring the pro’s and cons of stem cell research.
Stem cells have been hailed as ‘the most important cell ever discovered’. According to the New Scientist, unlike a red blood cell, which carries oxygen through the blood stream, or a muscle cell that works with other cells to produce movement, a stem cell does not have any specialised properties. This allows it to be turned into any other cell in the body. Stem cells could potentially be used to treat illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Adult stem cells are already being used to treat diseases such as leukaemia.
However, picture being able to grow replacement brain, muscle, and bone and organ tissue in the laboratory, which could be implanted into a patient without being rejected. Cardiac muscle that has been destroyed by a heart attack could also be repaired. The same goes for brain tissue damaged by a stroke, and severed spinal cords. Paralysed victims of spinal injuries, such as Reeve, might have been able to walk again. More and more people are suffering from incurable diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s in which our nervous systems are degenerating.
Stem cells could offer a lifeline for these patients, as they can be turned into replacement neurones to be transplanted into diseased brains. (New Scientist, Jan 2002). The problem many people have with stem cell research is the source from which the cells are extracted. The cells that are taken from early embryos have the greatest potential to develop. Not only did Reeves feel he had a battle with paralysis but also the Bush administration itself. Reeves had believed, that the Bush administration would not take the research further saying they had ‘dropped the ball’ on stem-cell research.
A form of technology, which could one day provide a cure for people with spinal injuries, like Reeve’s. (CNN, 2003) President Bush had allowed only limited research funds to be spent in this field. Reeve accused Bush of ‘listening to the Christian right at the expense of reasoned scientific opinion’ (CNN, 2003). However, he congratulated Tony Blair and the House of Lords for Britain’s decision to allow some forms of stem cell research. At the Labour Party Conference in Blackpool Tony Blair said he was ‘proud’ to have been thanked by Superman.
Nevertheless, even in the UK opinion is mixed. Pro life and Anti-abortion campaigners are opposed to such research because the results are human embryos being destroyed. The Coalition of American ethics views is ‘The destruction of human embryonic life is unnecessary for medical progress, as alternative methods of obtaining human stem cells and of repairing and regenerating human tissue exist and continue to be developed’. They also believe it to be ‘wrong for one human life to be used for the benefit of another’.
They have also rejected the need for embryonic stem cell research; saying tests on animals would prove just as useful. Reeve believed that adult stem cells ‘cannot get the job done’ and that the ability to manipulate these forms of cells ‘could save millions of lives’. (CNN 2003) There is also a strong religious lobbying against using embryonic stem cell research. When the Pope visited George Bush last year, he told the US president that the work was ‘as evil as infanticide’ (Pope John Paul II).
Believing obtaining the cells involves destroying early stage human embryos, and US Catholic bishops told him that the work is ‘illegal, immoral and unnecessary’. (BBC, 2004) Reeve, became a passionate campaigner, and had been driven by a combination of optimism and anger at others attitudes. Many people may not have even heard of Stem Cells until Reeves began to campaign for more research into them. Governments must now decide where does the research go from here. Surely, there must be a compromise in this difficult situation.
How can they stop the research into ways of stopping suffering or even death for millions of people? In addition, in the future will scientists find that the stem cells found in adults are of greater use, which in turn solves the problems of extracting the material from embryos? Alternatively, it could it all turn out to be too good to be true and we may learn that there are too many side effects to make stem cell therapy safe. These are all questions that may never have any answers, we will just have to wait and see.