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Elizabeth Cohen: Ethics of stem cell research

Elizabeth Cohen is a CNN medical correspondent based in Atlanta, GA.

CNN: Good afternoon Elizabeth Cohen. Welcome to Newsroom.

COHEN: Hello everyone and welcome to the stem cell chat.

CNN: The president is considering federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Why is this issue is coming to light at this time?

COHEN: What's driving this is that there are two very passionate sides to this debate. On the one hand you have people like Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox who say stem cells could cure their diseases and on the other side you have people who say no cure is worth destroying a human embryo. And since stem cells research at this point usually involves an embryo or fetus, that's where you get the debate

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is there a lot of misunderstanding about what a stem cell is?

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COHEN: Oh, yes. You better believe it. Just for my own education, I've been asking people I know if they can tell me what a stem cell is, and I get all sorts of answers. People know vaguely that they have something to do with medical research, but they have all sorts of misconceptions, such as that they derive by definition from the brain stem, or that they somehow exclusively are used to treat brain stem problems.

So, let's go over what they really are. They are essentially blank cells that potentially can be turned into pretty much any type of body tissue. So, for example, you could take a stem cell and in the lab convert it to a cardiac muscle cell and inject it into a heart that's been damaged by a heart attack, and the stem cells could repair the damaged muscle.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Isn't an embryo a conceived egg and sperm looking for the wall of its mother's womb?

COHEN: Well, that all depends on how you look at it. One major source of stem cells is embryos made in labs for in vitro fertilization purposes and those embryos have never seen the inside of a woman's uterus. They're in liquid nitrogen because the infertile couple already had their child and didn't need some of the leftover embryos.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Elizabeth: Is there any way to separate stem cell research from the abortion debate?

COHEN: You know, it's very interesting because several people who are staunchly anti-abortion, such as Senator Orrin Hatch, are pro stem cell research. I think it boils down to this: while aborted fetuses have been sources of stem cells, they're not the only source. You can also use the in vitro fertilization embryos I mentioned earlier. There are also other sources, such as bone marrow, that don't involve embryos or fetuses at all, but it's unclear how medically useful those so called "adult stem cells" are.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Ms. Cohen, can you explain why embryonic stem cells are the most hopeful course for research, above other sources for research?

COHEN: First, let's make one thing clear: stem cells at this point have not helped a single person. Embryonic stem cells are still in the animal testing stage -- so you are right to use the word "promising." Scientists believe that stem cells are so valuable because they're more than just a "fix" that your typical drug would give. Stem cells, once converted into, if you use my previous example, cardiac muscle actually become part of the body. They replace cells in the body that have gone wrong in some way

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If stem cells are able to regenerate, then wouldn't it be possible to cultivate a large amount of stem cells from just a small batch of embryos?

COHEN: Scientists simply don't know how many embryos they need to get the full range of stem cells they say would be needed to make various therapies. They say one embryo is not enough because you need a wide range for "matching" reasons. In other words, no one embryo would work for all treatments for all people but these scientists have also said that they don't need to harvest stem cells forever. They think that at some point they could stop. I've heard two years mentioned, but I don't think that's a magic number.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: So what does the opposition say is morally wrong with doing stem cell research if it does not interfere with the development of human life? What is their reason to oppose it?

COHEN: Their reason to oppose it is because they say life starts at conception whether that conception is done the natural way or done in a petri dish in an IVF lab somewhere. They say that these leftover IVF embryos frozen in labs all over the country could at any time be implanted into a woman's uterus and become a child and, in fact, have pointed out that some infertile couples have adopted these embryos and impregnated the wife and today have happy healthy children.

CNN: Is the surplus of these embryos from in vitro procedures enough so that they could be used both for adoption and research?

COHEN: People who are against embryonic stem cell research tell me that's not the point. There are many thousands of these frozen IVF embryos sitting in labs, but for the people who are against using embryos for research, it doesn't matter if there's enough for adoption and research. For them even using just one embryo for research is one too many.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Aren't stem cells from the umbilical cord also promising?

COHEN: Researchers are looking into using umbilical cord stem cells others are looking into using bone marrow cells, or even cells from fat tissue together. All these options are called "adult stem cells." While some see this as the better alternative to using embryos, we just did an interview with an adult stem cell researcher who says embryonic actually appear to be better and that you can't do one without the other

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Will transplanted cardiac or nerve cells created from embryonic stem cells have then same rejection problems that researchers had with fetal tissue research?

COHEN: You've identified one of the major areas that researchers still need to figure out. There are various immunological issues with embryonic stem cells. Again, this research is still in its infancy. They're still on animals. That is one benefit of using, for example, bone marrow adult stem cells-- you'd be using your own bone marrow so there's no rejection issues.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?

COHEN: I've been really struck by the emotions on both sides of this issue. On the one hand, parents of sick children can't believe that someone would deny them a possible cure. On the other side, people can't believe that anyone would destroy a human embryo that, if implanted into a woman's uterus, could become a person.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Elizabeth Cohen.

COHEN: Bye, and great questions!

Elizabeth Cohen joined the chat from CNN Center in Atlanta, GA. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Tuesday, July 17, 2001.

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