There are many studies involved when talking about genetic engineering. Perhaps the most criticized is the research of human embryonic stem cells (HESC). It is thought to hold immense promise for treatment to many of today's diseases and holds promise for regeneration of one's own tissue cells. If this is so, then why is there so much controversy surrounding its research? As we further review this topic, you make your own informed decision.
What we know: There are many misconceptions in regards to stem cells and its research. Perhaps the biggest misconception is the difference between adult stem cells (ADS), embryonic stem cells (ESC), and the ways in which they are rendered.
Let us start with developing an understanding of the cell. A cell is "the smallest structural unit of living matter capable of functioning independently." (Merriam-Webster)
"Cells differentiate  , and complex multicellular organisms are formed as a highly organized arrangement of differentiated cells. In the development of these multicellular organisms, the progeny  from a single cell form an embryo in which the cells multiply and differentiate to form the many specialized cells, tissues, and organs that comprise the final organism." (Concannon, Brown, & Brandt)
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With this process in mind, we can now begin to understand the difference between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells.
Adult stem cells are limited in their ability to produce different kinds of tissues. "A tissue is a group of cells that perform a common function." (Concannon, Brown, & Brandt) This because an adult stem cell is classified as a specialized cell. A specialized cell can only become the kind of tissue in which it was originated. Therefore, the primary roles of adult stem cells in a living organism are to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found. An example would be if you took adult cells from a liver, the cells would only be capable of regenerating cells used for liver function. You could not use these cells to help treat any other organs.
Embryonic cells, on the other hand, are classified as unspecialized cells; meaning they can produce several different tissue types. Embryonic stem cells are obtained from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst  . Since cells in a blastocyst have yet to group together as specific tissue cells, they are essentially blank slates, which are why they are more sought after in terms of research.
As previously mentioned, the primary role of an adult stem cell in a living organism is to maintain and repair the tissues in which they are found. Counter that with the uses of embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are "unique in that they pluripotent  --that is they are undifferentiated cells that have the capacity to develop into almost all of the bodies tissue types. This plasticity sets them apart from the other types of stem cells derived from adult tissues, fetal tissues, and umbilical cord blood, and facilitates the claim that HESCs have the potential to generate an unlimited supply of transplantable tissues. Whole organ transplants, such as for heart or kidney disease, will no longer rely on a supply of donors; neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis will become treatable; and patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes will be given new tissues capable of replacing the function of pharmaceutical regimes. Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine; it is argued, will be revolutionalized." (Salter)
Embryonic stem cells are used only in lab studies at this point. There is must research required before we can actually use this method for clinical treatments, this namely because of how the cells themselves are rendered. In rendering embryonic stem cells, scientist puncture the outer membrane of the blastocyst and the inner cell mass is transferred to a Petri dish containing a culture medium. The blastocyst is essentially destroyed. When this happens, it creates what is known as a cell line. A cell line is a family of constantly dividing cells. These stem cells are then replicated for a long period in hopes of cloning entire organisms.
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A reason this research is considered risqué is the ideal of cloning. Although scientist are not researching the practice of cloning entire human beings, but only simply cloning organs and other tissue cells for regenerative purposes, it is a widely misinterpreted. Mainly because of "Dolly" the sheep. We all remember Dolly, born in a lab in Scotland in1996, a clone. Although the clone was intentional, it was merely meant as a trial of the best way to produce new medicines and improve our understanding of development and genetics. Another issue here is that many religions believe that a human life begins at conception. Therefore, a fertilized blastocyst represents a human life and is indefinitely destroyed upon removing its' inner cell mass for studies, ultimately representing abortion of the fetus. You can see where the politics of this study come into play.
"Support for therapeutic cloning is strong enough to make a comprehensive cloning ban unacceptable." (Paarlberg) Due to the controversy in ESC research, scientists now are trying to create a moral stem cell. "For a large swath of the nation, creating human embryos (with intent to experiment lethally upon them) is morally repugnant, but the scientific community seems unwilling to accept anything else. But what if we could produce pluripotent stem cells, functionally identical to embryonic stem cells, without ever needing to create, experiment on, and destroy human embryos?" (Brugger) The ideal is to extract the nucleus of a somatic cell and transfer it into an ooplast (an organic sac of cytoplasm left when the nucleus has been removed from an egg cell, or oocyte.) They have still yet to master this namely because of the nucleus that they are removing. Remember that an adult stem cell is a specialized stem cell. They have to find ways to reverse how these cells work in order to mimic an embryonic stem cell.
Stem cells are a subject with which all people should be familiar. Globally social interest follows five policy options. They are described as follows:
Option 1- the prohibition of the procurement of HESCs from human embryos
Option 2- prohibition of the procurement of HESCs is retained but the importation of HESC lines is allowed
Option 3- allowing procurement of HESCs from super numerary human embryos (e.g. "spare" fertilized eggs as a result of in vitro)
Option 4- the prohibition of the creation of human embryos for research purposes, including cloning
Option 5- allowing the creation of human embryos for research purposes, including cloning, where the embryos has no separate moral status at all, but is simply an instrument in the application of HESC science.
Option four holds the highest regard worldwide. This is largely because the Catholic and Christian followers make up a large part of the religion of the world.
"There are still many obstacles to overcome, however, before stem cells can be used in cell replacement therapy. Among them are a lack of stable and efficient techniques to induce a specified differentiation, the limited sources for stem cells, immune rejection, and ethical issues, to name a few." (Sa Cai, Xiaobing, and Sheng) The progress of this research will likely remain slow going because the religious community whom believe that a life starts at conception and the scientific community that believes the ethic ""the end justifies the means." Researchers and their ethical advisors have long invoked this ethical approach in response to concerns about embryo destruction, claiming that any harm to embryonic life is far outweighed by the future benefits of this research to suffering patients." (Doerfllinger) This quote demonstrates the rules of science: which must show a commitment to the facts that is independent of social and political goals. Does the religious view maintain the same integrity? One thing remains clear; the topic is not going away. Will we ever come to a happy medium, which will help humanity live longer and healthier? Look at the facts and decide for yourself.
Brugger, E. Christian. "Moral Stem Cells." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life 163 (2006): 14-17. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 26 Dec. 2009.
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Cai, Sa, Xiaobing Fu, and Zhiyong Sheng. "Dedifferentiation: A New Approach in Stem Cell Research." Bioscience 57.8 (2007): 655-662. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 26 Dec. 2009.
Concannon, James, Patrick L. Brown, and Trisha Brandt. "Are You Teaching Your Students about Stem Cells?." Science Activities 46.2 (2009): 33-37. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 26 Dec. 2009.
Doerflinger, R. M. "The problem of deception in embryonic stem cell research." Cell Proliferation 41.(2008): 65-70. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 26 Dec. 2009.
Paarlberg, Robert L. "The Great STEM CELL RACE." Foreign Policy 148 (2005): 44-51. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 26 Dec. 2009.
Salter, Brian. "The Global Politics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Science." Global Governance 13.2 (2007): 277-298. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 26 Dec. 2009.
Vats, A., et al. "Stem cells." Lancet 366.9485 (2005): 592-602. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. Web. 26 Dec. 2009.