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Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Understanding stem cell research

President Bush has been struggling with the question of whether to allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. He is under pressure from patient groups that favor the research and from opponents who feel the work is inherently unethical. CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta explores the issue.

Q. What is a stem cell?

A. A stem cell is a pluripotent cell, meaning a cell that can develop into any kind of tissue. It is usually taken from an embryo that is in the development stage. The cells at this stage have not declared themselves and thus with programming can develop into a specific chosen cell line.

Q. Why are they so valuable?

A. They are extremely hard to come by. Again, the most useful cells come only from embryos.

Q. What is embryonic stem cell research and how is it performed?

A. For the first time, scientists are actually creating embryos for the sole purpose of research. Embryonic stem cell research involves collecting undifferentiated cells from embryos. These cells can differentiate into many different cell lines, including cardiac, neuro, or even skeletal muscle. The cells themselves are programmed into a cell line using stimulation of growth techniques.

Q. Why is this procedure so controversial?

A. Since the cells must come from an embryo, it often involves the discarding of potential human beings. The scientists and the right-to-life organizations are often in disagreement on this topic. Some argue that a sperm and an egg coming together in a petri dish really doesn't constitute life; when that embryo is implanted in a uterus that constitutes life.

There are many who believe that it is wrong to have abortions and the same argument is applied to embryonic research. If a fertilized egg is created for the sole purpose of research and not to possibly develop into a life, opponents may refer to it as an unnecessary taking of human life.

Q. Are there misconceptions among the public about this kind of research?

A. One common misconception is that stem cells are being currently used to cure diseases. At this time, stem cells are still very much in the research phase, and have not been used to either treat or cure any disease.

Q. Why not do this research with non-embryonic stem cell lines?

A. Non-embryonic stem cell lines involve cells that are more differentiated and thus less capable of being programmed into various cell lines. Simply put, as the cell line ages it loses its capability to differentiate itself into various tissues and thus is less useful. An aging stem cell doesn't quite have the luxury of dividing into all these cell lines.

Q. Is federal funding vital for stem cell research?

A. Federal funding is not necessarily vital for stem cell research, however scientists spend a lot of their time raising private funds for research that could be better spent on the research itself. Many scientists believe that if federal funding is approved, breakthroughs will be made much more rapidly.

Q. What kind of medical breakthroughs are expected by this research?

A. Scientists hope that stem cell research will lead to cures for such diseases as heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, and perhaps even spinal cord regeneration, to name a few. Again, however, the stem cell research has not been used to cure any diseases at this time.

Q. How do scientists hope to create the breakthroughs with the cells?

A. By growing these cell lines, they may be able to treat many existing diseases by actually replacing damaged cells with new ones from the laboratory.

It's incredibly exciting, the idea that we might actually take these cells, for example, to develop some heart tissue, inject some of those cells into a heart that has been damaged and restore some of the function of that heart. Stem cell research is a very exciting area of research.

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