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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Ask the Professor


Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered what your professors did all day when they were not in class?Are you unsure what you want to do with your degree or need more information about what options are available?

Do you want more information about Osama Bin Laden, and why the U.S. government thinks he was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center, especially considering that our government once considered him an ally?

Look no further: the expertise of Guilford’s diverse and talented faculty lies within your grasp. Ask the Professor will appear every other week here in the Forum section of The Guilfordian.

If you are looking for academic advice or want more information about a recent controversy or development within a particular field, send us your question at [email protected].

You can also send your questions to Vance Ricks, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, at [email protected]. Vance has graciously agreed to help coordinate the Ask the Professor column, making sure your questions are directed to faculty in the appropriate fields.

This week’s question concerns stem-cell research, and was posed to Frank Keegan, Professor of Biology.

Q: It seems that everywhere I go people are talking about embryonic stem-cell research and the President’s decision to provide federal funding limited to the 60 stem-cell lines already created.

What is an embryonic stem-cell line, and how does it differ from a non-embryonic stem-cell line? What could scientists possibly learn from a sampling as small as 60?

Keegan: The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports that human stem cells could be used to treat “Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.”

Furthermore, the study of stem cells would give us a better understanding of birth defects and cancer and provide us with a way of testing for the harmful effects of potential drugs, thus decreasing the use of animals in drug testing (information available at

Embryonic stem cells are cells isolated from an embryo that have the potential to develop into the different specialized types of body cells. Each of us started life as a single fertilized egg cell. That egg divided into a ball of cells, and some of these cells have the potential to develop into blood, liver, nerve cells, etc.

Human embryonic stem cells are isolated from the ball of cells of a five-day-old human embryo at a time when the cells have the potential to develop into any of the 220 different types of specialized cells.

Most normal human cells growing in the laboratory do not have the ability to develop into other types of cells, and have a finite lifetime, such that the cells die after a number of cell divisions.

We hope to develop lines of embryonic stem cells that can produce any of the 220 types of specialized human cells, and retain the ability to divide indefinitely.

Scientists were very surprised to find that adult tissue contains some cells that have the ability to develop into a variety of cell types.

Most of us have heard that an adult never gets any more nerve cells, but this belief has now been shown to be false. There are some adult stem cells, at least in certain areas of the brain, that can divide and replace damaged nerve tissue.

However, the number of adult stem cells in human tissue is very small, making them difficult to isolate and grow in the quantities needed for research.

Furthermore, adult stem cells have been exposed to harmful mutagens over the lifetime of the donor patient and appear to have more DNA damage than embryonic stem cells.

At this point in time, we do not know if we will be able to find stem cells in each of the tissues of an adult, or if the stem cells that we do find will be able to develop into all 220 cell types.

We have reason to believe that stem cells isolated from adult tissues will develop into only a limited range of cell types that will have only a limited ability to divide. For these reasons, scientists would prefer to pursue stem-cell research with cells derived from embryos.

The National Academy of Sciences concluded recently (9/11/01) that scientists will need more than the 64 embryonic stem cell lines approved for federal funding.

Of these 64 cell lines, only about 20 are held by organizations in the US. Organizations in Sweden, India, Australia, and Israel have control over the rest. Any profits from the development of medical therapies would go to the country and organization holding the cell line.

Presently, only about 20 of the 64 cell lines are developed enough for use in stem-cell research, and we do not currently know if the other cell lines will, in fact, produce specialized cells and divide indefinitely.

The stem-cell lines currently available also suffer from the possibility of contamination by mouse viruses, since at an early stage in stem cell line development, the human cells must be fed mouse cells. (No one has yet been able to duplicate whatever it is that mouse cells contribute to the growth of human cells.)

For the above reasons, scientists would like to be able to use federal funds to develop many more embryonic stem-cell lines.

HHS Secretary Thompson’s response to the above criticisms is that the government only intends to support basic research on stem cells (to get the ball rolling), and then private companies would take over funding the research in anticipation of developing profitable therapies.

Organizations that support research for developing therapies for spinal injury patients and others want the federal government to be much more aggressive in supporting stem cell research. Federal institutions, such as, NIH and NSF provide the major bulk of research monies for scientists, and advocacy groups want that support behind stem cell research.

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