COLUMN: Embryonic stem cell research: Coming to a campus near you

By Tyler Friederich

The controversial debate over stem cell research has made its way to the University of Illinois campus, although most students probably are not aware of this fact. In mid-August, Governor Blagojevich circumvented the state legislature and appropriated funds from last year’s budget, which were under the title “scientific research,” towards stem cell research. Among the funds he distributed, $1,650,000 will be given to three researchers on our campus. At least $400,000 of these funds concern embryonic stem cells.

The move by Blagojevich is disappointing for a couple of reasons. First, the Illinois General Assembly has not approved any funding for embryonic stem cell research; the Illinois Senate even rejected a motion to endorse embryonic stem cell research without state funds. By using his executive authority to appropriate a total of $10 million towards stem cell research, he has willfully undermined the will of the state representatives and the citizens they represent. Describing his actions as a “moral obligation”, Blagojevich purposefully deceived the state legislature and his constituents.

Second, the actions and research that occurs on the University of Illinois campus are a reflection of the school’s student body and affect its reputation. While increased medical research concerning stem cells will increase publicity and provide possibilities for ground-breaking discoveries and publications, the will of the students should at least be heard; or at the very least, the issue should be discussed at a forum. President B. Joseph White’s assertion that Blagojevich had “the courage to do something right, something difficult” may not represent the sentiment of the student body.

The three University professors who will be using the appropriated funds to research stem cells are Lawrence Schook, Matthew Stewart, and Fei Wang. Professor Wang’s research will focus on human embryonic stem cells, which, according to his University profile, may “hold considerable promise for the treatment of a vast number of conditions including cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative processes and diabetes.” Unfortunately, when I tried to ask Professor Wang about the impact of his work, he declined to comment. While the opportunity to advance medical research and possibly discover new cures using embryonic stem cells is appealing, evidence also indicates that other stem cells, which do not necessitate the destruction of a human embryo, hold comparable promise.

Research that may “radically alter the national stem-cell debate and provide treatments for conditions such as stroke, heart disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease” sounds eerily similar to the rhetoric concerning embryonic stem cells. Yet this research at the University of Louisville was performed on stem cells in adult mice which mimicked embryonic stem cells. Okay, so obviously mice are not people. However, researchers at our own University found similar stem cells in human umbilical cord blood, and other researchers across the country have confirmed the presence of adult stem cells that have the ability to virtually become any type of cell.

The research within the next few years should be focused on stem cells other than embryonic cells. While many argue that the discarding of embryos after the in vitro fertilization process is a waste of resources, I agree with President Bush’s contention that “the fact that a living being is going to die does not justify experimenting on it or exploiting it as a natural resource.” I realize that embryonic stem cells provide enormous potential. But if there is a chance of averting an ethical and moral dilemma, we should take it. Though the hype concerning embryonic stem cells has increased our hopes, I fear that the research on adult stem cells, which are devoid of controversy, and the advancements they have already provided will be relegated to insignificance. For example, in a recent episode, Larry King disregarded his guest’s evidence of adult stem cells helping paralyzed people regain feeling.

Student Senate President Ryan Ruzic’s declaration that “there is a clear concern from many students on how our money is being spent” identifies one aspect of this controversy. The fact that research on embryonic stem cells is being performed on this campus presents a Catch-22 for the University and its students. We need to ask ourselves what is more important: maintaining our moral and ethical dignity, or making strides towards research that may or may not provide the possibilities of new cures? I side with the former.