Center releases new public survey on stem cells

October 13, 2005

Stem cells are unique among human cells in that they possess the uncanny ability to develop into virtually any other cell of the body, offering a hypothetical tool kit for repairing diseased hearts, mending broken spinal cords, or correcting genetic diseases, among other hoped-for benefits. Stem cells derived from very early embryos show the most promise in research to date, but the embryo is destroyed in the process of acquiring the cells themselves. This outcome is not acceptable to individuals and institutions that believe human life at all stages of development deserves protection and should not be destroyed.

Much current debate focuses on whether other sources of stem cells - blood from the umbilical cord removed at birth, for example - might be as useful without the need to destroy embryos, but the scientific consensus so far is that embryos remain the best research choice. Typically, the embryos used are those remaining at the conclusion of fertility treatments that would otherwise be discarded or kept in frozen storage; a ban on the use of Federal funds to create new stem cells using these embryos currently is in effect, and various pieces of legislation pending in Congress would either extend this ban or relax it.

A survey of 2,212 Americans conducted September 9-19, reveals a public opinion landscape that bears little resemblance to the polarized, deep moral divide expressed on the floor of the Congress and in the op-ed pages of American newspapers.

The survey found wide support for embryonic stem cell (ESC) research that cut across political, religious and socio-economic lines, with two-thirds of respondents either approving or strongly approving of human embryonic stem cell research. Even Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians - long considered to be the most hard-line opponents of embryonic stem cell studies -- split evenly on approval for embryonic stem cell research.

Respondents were given a choice of four ESC research policy options: banning all embryonic stem cell research, retaining the current Bush administration policy, relaxing restrictions along the lines of some Congressional proposals that would allow federal funding of research using embryonic stem cell lines created using private funds, and unqualified Federal support for embryonic stem cell creation and research.

Twenty-two percent of respondents expressed support for the current Bush administration policy; fewer still (16 percent), would ban embryonic stem cell research altogether. A majority favored relaxing embryonic stem cell restrictions, including 40 percent who would support federal funding for both the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines and further research using them.

The survey also explored how potential future changes in the scientific landscape might affect public opinion. Respondents were asked to imagine two scenarios - the development of a technique to isolate ESCs without destroying embryos, or a major advance in treating disease based on embryonic stem cell technologies. About 25 percent of respondents who initially favored the current policy or a complete ban of ESC research indicated that if the treatment scenario were to materialize, they would support a public policy for ESC research that is more supportive than their initial policy position. Similarly, if the alternative scenario were to materialize, 16 percent of respondents who currently endorse a public policy towards ESC research that is more permissive than the current public policy would then support ESC research only if embryos were not destroyed.

The survey looked beyond overall attitudes toward ESC research to explore the competing values that underlie them. Survey respondents were asked a series of questions designed to ascertain the value placed on progress in ESC research and protecting early human embryos. The survey revealed a subtle topography of the public's attitudes with only a small fraction (6 percent at each pole) of the public occupying the extreme positions that so frequently characterize the public and policy debate. Fully half expressed agreement both with statements that placed high priority on protecting human embryos and with statements that placed high priority on searching for medical cures through ESC research. When asked in a single item which was more important, 60 percent selected ESC research and 37 percent selected not destroying embryos.

While the moral status of human embryos has been the centerpiece of the political debate about ESC research, often articulated as an all-or-nothing proposition that is fully predictive of all of an individual's other views on embryonic stem cell research, the public's views about the moral status of embryos and the relationship of those views to ESC research policy preferences has not been fully explored. The survey showed that nearly the same number of Americans believe that an embryo in a Petri dish has no or low moral status (30 percent) or maximum moral status (28 percent). The remainder (42 percent) accord embryos some intermediate moral status.

A third of those who believe an embryo in a Petri dish has maximum moral status nonetheless approve of ESC research. Similarly, a third support ESC research policies more permissive than the current policy and which involve funding for research using new ESCs.

In a parallel fashion, 17 percent of those who accord an embryo in a Petri dish no or low moral status nevertheless disapprove of ESC research and support the current ESC policy or an all-out ban (22 percent). Thus, even for a sizeable number of respondents who fall at the polar ends of the moral status continuum, the commonly held expectation that they will support the corresponding policy extreme does not hold true.
-end-


Genetics & Public Policy Center, Johns Hopkins University

Related Stem Cells Articles from Brightsurf:

SUTD researchers create heart cells from stem cells using 3D printing
SUTD researchers 3D printed a micro-scaled physical device to demonstrate a new level of control in the directed differentiation of stem cells, enhancing the production of cardiomyocytes.

More selective elimination of leukemia stem cells and blood stem cells
Hematopoietic stem cells from a healthy donor can help patients suffering from acute leukemia.

Computer simulations visualize how DNA is recognized to convert cells into stem cells
Researchers of the Hubrecht Institute (KNAW - The Netherlands) and the Max Planck Institute in Münster (Germany) have revealed how an essential protein helps to activate genomic DNA during the conversion of regular adult human cells into stem cells.

First events in stem cells becoming specialized cells needed for organ development
Cell biologists at the University of Toronto shed light on the very first step stem cells go through to turn into the specialized cells that make up organs.

Surprising research result: All immature cells can develop into stem cells
New sensational study conducted at the University of Copenhagen disproves traditional knowledge of stem cell development.

The development of brain stem cells into new nerve cells and why this can lead to cancer
Stem cells are true Jacks-of-all-trades of our bodies, as they can turn into the many different cell types of all organs.

Healthy blood stem cells have as many DNA mutations as leukemic cells
Researchers from the Princess Máxima Center for Pediatric Oncology have shown that the number of mutations in healthy and leukemic blood stem cells does not differ.

New method grows brain cells from stem cells quickly and efficiently
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden have developed a faster method to generate functional brain cells, called astrocytes, from embryonic stem cells.

NUS researchers confine mature cells to turn them into stem cells
Recent research led by Professor G.V. Shivashankar of the Mechanobiology Institute at the National University of Singapore and the FIRC Institute of Molecular Oncology in Italy, has revealed that mature cells can be reprogrammed into re-deployable stem cells without direct genetic modification -- by confining them to a defined geometric space for an extended period of time.

Researchers develop a new method for turning skin cells into pluripotent stem cells
Researchers at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, have for the first time succeeded in converting human skin cells into pluripotent stem cells by activating the cell's own genes.

Read More: Stem Cells News and Stem Cells Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.