Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.
In the beginning, one cell becomes two, and two become four. Being fruitful, they multiply into a ball of many cells, a shimmering sphere of human potential. Scientists have long dreamed of plucking those naive cells from a young human embryo and coaxing them to perform, in sterile isolation, the everyday miracle they perform in wombs: transforming into all the 200 or so kinds of cells that constitute a human body. Liver cells. Brain cells. Skin, bone, and nerve.
The dream is to launch a medical revolution in which ailing organs and tissues might be repaired—not with crude mechanical devices like insulin pumps and titanium joints but with living, homegrown replacements. It would be the dawn of a new era of regenerative medicine, one of the holy grails of modern biology.
Revolutions, alas, are almost always messy. So when James Thomson, a soft-spoken scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, reported in November 1998 that he had succeeded in removing cells from spare embryos at fertility clinics and establishing the world's first human embryonic stem cell line, he and other scientists got a lot more than they bargained for. It was the kind of discovery that under most circumstances would have blossomed into a major federal research enterprise. Instead the discovery was quickly engulfed in the turbulent waters of religion and politics. In church pews, congressional hearing rooms, and finally the Oval Office, people wanted to know: Where were the needed embryos going to come from, and how many would have to be destroyed to treat the millions of patients who might be helped? Before long, countries around the world were embroiled in the debate.
Most alarmed have been people who see embryos as fully vested, vulnerable members of society, and who decry the harvesting of cells from embryos as akin to cannibalism. They warn of a brave new world of "embryo farms" and "cloning mills" for the cultivation of human spare parts. And they argue that scientists can achieve the same results using adult stem cells—immature cells found in bone marrow and other organs in adult human beings, as well as in umbilical cords normally discarded at birth.
Advocates counter that adult stem cells, useful as they may be for some diseases, have thus far proved incapable of producing the full range of cell types that embryonic stem cells can. They point out that fertility clinic freezers worldwide are bulging with thousands of unwanted embryos slated for disposal. Those embryos are each smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. They have no identifying features or hints of a nervous system. If parents agree to donate them, supporters say, it would be unethical not to do so in the quest to cure people of disease.
Few question the medical promise of embryonic stem cells. Consider the biggest United States killer of all: heart disease. Embryonic stem cells can be trained to grow into heart muscle cells that, even in a laboratory dish, clump together and pulse in spooky unison. And when those heart cells have been injected into mice and pigs with heart disease, they've filled in for injured or dead cells and sped recovery. Similar studies have suggested stem cells' potential for conditions such as diabetes and spinal cord injury.
Critics point to worrisome animal research showing that embryonic stem cells sometimes grow into tumors or morph into unwanted kinds of tissues—possibly forming, for example, dangerous bits of bone in those hearts they are supposedly repairing. But supporters respond that such problems are rare and a lot has recently been learned about how to prevent them.
The arguments go back and forth, but policymakers and governments aren't waiting for answers. Some countries, such as Germany, worried about a slippery slope toward unethical human experimentation, have already prohibited some types of stem cell research. Others, like the U.S., have imposed severe limits on government funding but have left the private sector to do what it wants. Still others, such as the U.K., China,
Korea, and Singapore, have set out to become the epicenters of stem cell research, providing money as well as ethical oversight to encourage the field within carefully drawn bounds.
In such varied political climates, scientists around the globe are racing to see which techniques will produce treatments soonest. Their approaches vary, but on one point, all seem to agree: How humanity handles its control over the mysteries of embryo development will say a lot about who we are and what we're becoming.
Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.