The Controversy Surrounding Stem Cell Research Biology Essay

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"Stem Cells", have always grabbed the interests of scientists in the biomedical field. The inquisitiveness on the applications of stem cells has led them to conducting countless researches for almost a decade now. Nonetheless, it is believed that there are much more breakthroughs to be attained in this day and age as scientists delve extensively into the research by using techniques with rather advanced and sophisticated technologies. In fact, it has become rather common in this current epoch to come across stem cell transplants. It occurs in almost every nook and corner of the world. However, it cannot be denied that some of them are still very much unaware of such a cell in their bodies. In view of that, first and foremost, what is a stem cell? According to the National Institutes of Health resource for stem cell research (2009), a stem cell is basically an unspecialized cell that is able to self-renew and differentiate into many distinct types of mature cells. This capability of developing into approximately 300 forms of cells is in line with the statement by MedicineNet.com (2001); stem cell is considered to be the fundamental key of all cells present in a human body. Stem cells have also been further categorized into two distinct types by the Experiment Resources.com (2008-2010); stem cells that can take up the form of any kind of cells in the body and those capable of fixing and restoring impaired cells. As such, this inimitable nature of these stem cells is the rationale of conducting a research on it. As the speculation regarding stem cells rises, there is much controversy and arguments between those who are in favour of the research and those who strongly oppose it. As a matter of fact, in this 21st century, apart from issues on animal testing, stem cell research too has become one of the most debatable subjects. The debate on this area of discussion has led to this investigation report which will deliberate on whether,

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"Should Medical Research Involving The Use Of Human Stem Cells Be Permitted?"

This research encloses on the:-

History, background and types of stem cells

Arguments defending human stem cell research

Arguments against human stem cell research

This research investigation is based on sources from books, magazines, and articles from the internet.

History, Background And Types Of Human Stem Cells

History And Background Of Stem Cell Research

Stem cells were first discovered by Dr. Ernest McCulloch, a medical researcher at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto, Canada in 1960. He had noticed some odd-looking, small whitish bumps in a mice's spleen that he had experimented on. McCulloch and his partner, James Till, discovered that each bump was a colony of cells and named it spleen colonies that were created by a single cell. In 1963, they proved that the colonies were formed from a single cell that was able to duplicate itself and create colonies of different kinds of blood cells. Blood cells seem to stem from these cells. Hence the name stem cells came about (Allman, 2006).

Types Of Stem Cells

Stem cells that have mostly been dealt with by scientists can be classified into three main forms;

Adult stem cells

According to Allman (2006), this stem cell was discovered by a former medical student at the Standford University named Irving Weissman in 1988. They are located either in the bone marrow, a copius source of stem cells, or in peripheral system of the human body.

Embryonic stem cells (ES Cells)

ES cells materializes from the process of fertilization that occurs for approximately 5 days(3) Before human embryonic stem cells came about, two scientists, Gail Martin and Martin Evans had discovered the mouse embryonic stem cells. Moving on from this discovery, James Thomson from the University of Wisconsin and John Hopkins University had successfully discovered and segregated the human ES cells in order to be grown in the laboratory. The human ES cells are attained directly from an embryo that has not begun to differentiate. However, this discovery was not applauded entirely as it raised several ethical concerns. This matter will be further discussed in the later components of the research. (Allman 2006)

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Cord blood stem cells

Cord blood is the blood that is within the umbilical cord that flows from the placenta to the foetus. The residual of the umbilical cord that is commonly disposed of after labour contains a great deal amount of stem cells which are referred to as cord cells. They have the potentials of altering themselves into the other various types of blood cells. They are one of the types of adult stem cells. However, they are much younger and lack maturity compared to the other adult stem cells. These cord cells is stored in cryogenic cell banks as a type of insurance policy for future use on behalf of the newborn. Cord cells can also be used by the close family members. The more distant the relationship, the more likely it is, that the cells will be rejected by the immune system's antibodies. (Allman 2006)

Arguments Defending Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research is rather essential in providing assistance in curing degenerative diseases, in obtaining additional knowledge regarding the human body system and as well as in potentially reducing animal testing.

Many of the currently incurable and degenerative diseases can be cured by the various types of stem cells available.

Cord blood stem cells for example, has been claimed by Debbie Lau, the Health Editor of Reader's Digest Asian Edition (2009) to be able to treat life threatening immune system disorders and blood diseases such as leukaemia, sickle cell disease and thalassemia. She also mentioned that this stem cell became prevalent after the very first cord blood transplant that was conducted on a Fanconi's anaemic patient. This is also supported by Allman (2006) where he discussed on Nathan Salley of fourteen years old and Brandyn Orr of two years, who at that time were diagnosed with leukaemia,( a type of blood cancer) are two of the known successful patients of cord blood transplants. Brandyn had his brother's cord blood, which was saved during birth in cord blood banks, transplanted into his body. Both of them, as for now, years after the transplant, are in the pink of health. Chloe Levine was a mere nine month old baby when she was diagnosed with stroke unborn. She was brain-damaged and crippled by cerebral palsy. However, cord blood stem cells came to her rescue when she had her umbilical cord blood which was saved during her birth infused into her. She showed a remarkable improvement as she can now run, raise her arms above her head and most importantly talk (De Bertodano 2009).

Hematopoietic stem cell, on the other hand, as revealed by Allman (2006), is an adult stem cell, present in the bone marrow that is competent in forming eight types of blood cells that varies from red blood cells and white blood cells to platelets. He also claimed that St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee to be one of the most renowned places for their impressive improvement in curing leukemic children. From a mere 4% who survived leukaemia in 1960's, it has advanced to a vast 80% of survivors in this day and time.

Mesenchymal stem cells, another type of adult stem cell in the bone marrow is used as a therapy for bone illnesses. Jacob Menzel was born with osteogenesis imperfect, (frail bone disorder) that affected his growth. Those with this disorder are subjected to petite frame, deformed and stunted growth. Menzel was infused with an entire bone marrow containing the mesenchymal stem cells by Dr. Ed Horwitz in 1997 and this aided Jacob in developing new bones that kept him in good physical shape (Allman, 2006).

Bone marrow transplants of stem cells have also been proven effective by medical practitioners in St. Judes' in curing an inherited disease called the sickle-cell anaemia. This illness is an agony due to the erroneous crescent shaped blood cells that flows through the blood vessels. It is also capable of forming a blockade that might lead to strokes and seizures. Shandel Narcisse, from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia was a victim of this anguishing disease and at the age of four, he was affected by stroke. His family went to seek for treatment in St. Judes'. In 2000, Shandel had a bone marrow transplant from his brother Randel, who coincidently was a perfect match for him. Shandel is now an energetic and lively eight year old (Allman, 2006).

Stem cell research can be used to study the development of the human body and assists in obtaining additional knowledge.

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Stem cells as mentioned earlier are unique as they are able to self replicate themselves umpteen times and even grow into other types of cells. This is an important factor that helps in studying the cells. As stated in the EuroStemCell website (2008-2010), stem cells that are grown in laboratories provide a form of guidance to researches or scientists. Scientists are able to constantly track down the cell activities and its advancement; from a simple fertilised embryo into a fully grown, mature and developed life form. By doing so, they could also be able to discover the various methods or systems and even certain indications by the cells in deciding to self replicate or develop into other specialised cells. As such, customary basic cell advancement can be identified. It was also mentioned that this identification of cell advancement can be of assistance in the exploration of the cancerous cells and also birth imperfections that is mostly caused by malformed cell division and an insight regarding this cell division might also impart improved techniques in finding a cure for such illnesses. Besides the study of diseases due to malformed cell division, other diseases can also be reviewed. Cells that are infected with a particular disease are most often dead or severely damaged. As such, the cells are not useable in conducting experiments to study the particular disease. However, with the aid of stem cells, that can be genetically modified to possess the infected gene, scientists can once again monitor the representation of the disease and obtain a better and in depth knowledge of the actual reason of the disease (EuroStemCell 2008-2010)

Stem cell research could potentially help in reducing animal testing.

On the word of Professor Jamie Thompson (Fatimathas and Raper 2010), adult stem cells that have been modified into induced pluripotent stem cell (iPS) are indeed capable of decreasing the number of animals used for drug testing. This is so because, iPS eradicates ineffectual drugs at early stages even before it is tested on animals. Thus, by reducing the number of drugs at initial stages, the number of animals tested can also be greatly reduced. This is clearly acknowledged by Dr. Vasanta Subramaniam from the University of Bath who would be using iPS from skin cells to conduct research on neurological diseases instead of the common method of using animals for the research.

In an article by Knight (2008), it is stated that animal testing can put a stop to the usage of stem cells, in particular embryonic stem cells whereby it was defended by Professor of Developmental Biology, Christine Mummery, in her speech at a conference involving the British Pharmacological Society in Brighton, UK. In her speech, she illustrated on the anticipating substitute for animal testing; the usage of ES cells in forming human heart cells. She also told CNN that by doing so, the need for more test be conducted to investigate on the reliability of drugs can be significantly lowered. This is because in conventional animal testing, it is not safe to conclude that a drug is safe by just testing it upon animals as it can be incompetent with the human body. Thus, this requires further tests and experiments. However, by using the human heart cells obtained from the specialization of stem cells, the entire process of drug development can be simplified and the usage of animals such as rodents and dogs in testing if at all drugs may be lethal. In the UK, drug testing involving the usage of stem cells was already being encouraged by an initiative "stem cells for safer medicine" in 2007. This similar act is very much expected by Mummery to be conducted in other countries especially in America with President Obama being a supporter of stem cell research. Michelle Thew, Chief Executive at the British Union for the abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) also verified that this method still involves the usage of animals to a certain extent, but it is rather convincing as it may be able to lower the count of live animals used in the testing (Knight, 2008).

Arguments Against Stem Cell Research

Though beneficial, stem cell research is still being opposed due to the failures on the usage of stem cells, the fallacious exaggeration on the benefits of embryonic stem cells and also due to the ethical issues raised on the usage of the embryonic stem cells for research.

The Usage Of Stem Cell Fails

Allman (2006) reveals that some fraudulent individuals take the success of these cord blood stem cells as an opportunity in alluring those ingenuous ones to swindle money from them by providing fallacious treatment. Tom Hill is one of those unfortunate ones who have fallen for all their deceptive words. Hill was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease (damaged brains and nervous system that inhibits muscle movement) at the age of fifty-five. Longing badly for a cure, he turned for help to a company in Canada, which allege that his disease could be treated by injecting cord blood stem cells into his bloodstream and his belly. However, he departed this life in 2004 without any whatsoever help from the fake treatment. Knowing that it was just a scam, the Canadian and American government then ceased the company. It also admitted by Marzili (2007), that the use of human stem cells might jeopardise human health. Patients are at a danger of being inflicted with tumour. The experiment conducted on rats with Parkinson's disease did show positive results but it cannot be denied that some have failed. These rats were injected with ES cells. About 50% showed improvement and benefited from the stem cells but nearly 20% of the rats were inflicted with brain tumour that eventually led to death. He also warned that human ES cells faces a probable rebuff (rejection) by the patient's immune system. Scientists from the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh have commented that ES cells could bring out implications on the usage of it due to the possibilities of rejection by the human immune system. However, adult stem cells may not cause such a problem as it is from the patient itself and there is totally no chance of a rebuff.

Supporters Exaggerate The Benefits Of Embryonic Stem Cell Research.

According to Marzili (2007), this clique who is in favour of ES cells research is rather money-minded. They overemphasize on the possible benefits of ES cells and tend to blind side patients who are critically ill with only one hope; a cure to be able to sustain their life. He also indicated that ES cells have not been ascertained victorious thus far and the potentials of ES cells in curing Parkinson's disease and diabetes are deemed as propaganda. A fact sheet released by the Michigan Right to Life contains a typical statement: "Embryonic stem cell research has yet cure a single person of a single disease.....proponents have created a fairy tale, promising that cures are at the fingertips of scientists when this isn't the case (Marzili 2007)

Ethical Issues Concerning The Use Of Stem Cells In Research

Revile (2009) describes research on human embryonic stem cells as a form of destruction of the human embryos which is considered an immoral act as it is believed that from the very moment a sperm fuses into an ovum, a human life is formed. Therefore, killing a form of life is well thought out as unethical. The destruction of life even in the aspect of research is verified as cold-blooded murder. This inevitably causes impertinence for life writes Reville (2009). There is a line of reasoning between proponents and opponents of ES cell research regarding the usage of the superfluous number of residual human embryos following the IVF course of action. Proponents argue that instead of leaving it to die in the long run, why not it is used for a beneficial purpose such as a research to identify its significance in treatment of diseases. However, opponents are strongly in support of the fact that it is of nobody's right to take away another life or even to decide its fate in the near future. They stick up by accentuating that it is already a pity that their existence is of such, so the least that can be done to lessen their dejection is to permit them to depart this life peacefully writes Reville (2009) -(Irish Times, May 15th, 2009) Stem cell research can eventually lead to human cloning one day. Some argue that stem cell research in the far future can lead to knowledge on how to clone humans using SCNT. It is hard to say whether this is true but we have seen devastating consequences of other research-programmes, even with good intentions such as nuclear research. (Marzili 2007)

Conclusion

One of the possible future implication if stem cell research is permitted, would probably be there will be more investments on adult stem cells than embryonic stem cells. Stem cell investment, research effort, and treatment focus is moving rapidly away from embryonic stem cells (ethical and technical challenges) to adult stem cells which are turning out to be far easier to convert into different tissues than we thought in 2000-2003 (2). expect rapid progress in adult stem cells and slower, less intense work with embryonic stem cells. And along the way we will see a number of biotech companies' fold, as a result of over-investment into embryonic stem cells, plus angst over ethics and image, without watching the radar screen closely enough, failing to see the onward march of adult stem cell technology. Using embryos as a source of spare-part cells will always be far more controversial than using adult tissue, or perhaps cells from umbilical cord after birth, and investors will wish to reduce unnecessary risk, both to the projects they fund, and to their own organisations by association. <http://www.globalchange.com/stemcells2.htm>

Another possible outcome would be the advancement of adult stem cells. History will show that, by 2020, we were already able to produce a wide range of tissues using adult stem cells, with spectacular progress in tissue building and repair. In some cases, these stem cells will be actually incorporated into the new repairs as differentiated cells, in other cases; they will be temporary assistants in local repair processes. <http://www.globalchange.com/stemcells2.htm>

In my opinion, stem cell research should be permitted. Despite the divided opinions about stem cell research, the research has not stopped. The controversy about the embryonic stem cells has slowed progress in some areas but the research still goes on in universities and laboratories in the world. If one nation outlaws it, other countries allow and even encourage it. The knowledge cannot be undone. The science goes forward.