Cell research has been around for a number of centuries. Stem cell research on the other hand was discovered in the 20th century but exactly when and by whom is a matter of debate. Stem cell research has been called “a backbone of regenerative medicine” as it offers an enormous potential in curing many kinds of diseases. However, a particular type of research known as human embryonic stem cell (hESC) is controversial because it involves the destruction of an embryo and thus stirs much debate. The controversy stems from a similar debate over abortion which is, when does human life begin and what is the moral status of the human embryo (Steinbock, 2006). Those who support hESC research view the loss of an embryo as acceptable because of the potential of saving thousands of lives. On the other hand, those who oppose it say that the destruction is unethical because an embryo is a form of life and must be respected and protected. Is human embryonic stem cell research ethically acceptable? This paper will give a broad overview of what a stem cell is, the difference between embryonic and adult stem cell; the points made by the two opposing arguments and finally, the ethics behind embryonic stem cell research.
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Cell-based therapies are considered by many researchers as one of the most promising areas in medical science. Cells in the human body are “destroyed by age or disease or by side effects of treatments for diseases such as cancer” (Freedman, 2008, p. 6). The potential for growing new cells through stem cell research offer great promise in replacing damaged cells. What are stem cells? According to the National Institute of Health (National Institute of Health (NIH), n.d.) stem cells are distinguished from other kinds of cells in the body by three general properties. First, they have the ability to divide and renew themselves for long periods. It is said that a starting population that renews themselves in a laboratory can become millions on cells. In contrast, other cells like those of the muscle and blood, do not replicate themselves. Second, stem cells are unspecialized which means that they do not have tissue-specific structures that perform specific functions, for example, the heart muscle cell pumps blood to the body. However, they can give rise to specialized cells, which is the third general property. The process of doing so is called differentiation. Through several complex steps, the cells become more specialized. There are two main types of stem cells, adult and embryonic.
Adult stem cells are those gathered from patients after birth and normally generate only a single form of offspring cells. According to the NIH adult stem cell can be found among differentiated cells in a tissue or organ and their primary role is to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found. The have been identified in the brain, bone marrow, peripheral blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscle, skin, teeth, heart, gut, liver, ovarian epithelium and testis. Adult stem cells are called multipotent because they can give rise to several types of cells within a particular tissue, organ or physiological system. The NIH said that “scientists have reported that adult stem cells occur in many tissues and that they enter normal differentiation pathways for the specialized cell types in which they reside”. Examples of this include hematopoietic stem cells which give rise to all types of blood cells; and neural stems cells in the brain which give rise to its three major cell types, nerve cells (neurons) and two categories of non-neuronal cells – astrocytes and oligodendrocytes. The NIH continued to say that “a number of experiments have reported that certain adult stem cell types can differentiate into cell types seen in organs or tissues other than those expected from the cells’ lineage (i.e., brain stem cells that differentiate into blood cells or blood-forming cells that differentiate into cardiac muscle cells, and so forth). This reported phenomenon is called transdifferentiation.” This is important because if adult stem cells can transdifferentiate, there may be no need for hESC research. There are studies that question transdifferentiation though. In an article written by Gretchen Vogel “Studies cast doubt on plasticity of adult cells” she cited a March 2002 issue of Nature Medicine where scientists at the University of Toronto led by Derek van Der Kooy and Cindi Morshead reported “that they could not replicate earlier reports that cells from adult brain could become blood cells (Science, 22 January 1999, pp 471 and 534).”
Embryonic stem cells on the other hand, are stem cells taken from an embryo specifically at the blastocyst stage. At this stage, the embryo contains hundreds of cells that are pluripotent because they have the potential to develop into all cells and tissues in the human body. According to the NIH, most embryonic stem cells come from embryos created in in vitro fertilization clinics and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. Embryonic stem cells are grown in laboratories through cell culture. “Human embryonic stem cells are generated by transferring cells from a preimplantation-stage embryo into a plastic laboratory culture dish that contains a nutrient broth known as culture medium. The cells divide and spread over the surface of the dish.” (NIH, n.d.) These cells can remain undifferentiated or unspecialized for long periods of time. As these cells can begin to differentiate spontaneously when allowed to clump together, scientists try to control the differentiation to enable them to generate cultures of specific types of differentiated cells like heart muscle cells or blood cells. “Through years of experimentation, scientists have established some basic protocols or “recipes” for the directed differentiation of embryonic stem cells into specific cell types. If scientists can reliably direct the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into specific cell types, they may be able to use the resulting, differentiated cells to treat certain diseases in the future.” (NIH, n.d.) However, because of the higher capacities of hESC for proliferation and differentiation, there is also a higher risk of causing formation of tumor in the patient’s body after being implanted (Devolver 11).
Supporters say that hESC research is justified because of the great potential for alleviating or preventing suffering and developing cures for diseases (todohert, 2016). They also contend that since the embryos to be used or are being used would otherwise be destroyed as they are no longer desired or needed by the donors, it would be beneficial to use them for research (Freedman, 2008, p. 18). Supporters of hESC research point to the many advantages they have over adult stem cells. While adult stem cell research has already resulted in successful cell-based therapies like blood transfusion and bone marrow transplant, adult stem cells are limited in quantity and does not have the same capacity for proliferation as hESCs. Additionally, the capacity of adult stem cells for transdifferentiation which has the potential for rendering hESC research less important, has been questioned as referenced previously.
Supporters also question the contention of those who oppose hESC research that destroying the embryos is the same as killing a human being. They contend that the blastocysts where the cells are taken from are not human beings yet but merely a set of undifferentiated cells. They distinguish the blastocyst from a fetus claiming that pre-implantation, the blastocyst cannot develop into a human being. Supporters say that an embryo’s potential to develop into a human being does not give it the moral status or the rights of a human person (Steinbock, 2006). According to Arthur Caplan, professor of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, “an embryo in a dish is more like a set of instructions or blueprint for a house. It can’t build a house. For the cells to develop into a human being requires an interactive process in the uterus between the embryo and the mother” (Clemmit 702). Additionally, there are embryos created in a lab from donated egg cells for the purpose of research and supporters contend that it is ethical to use these since the initial purpose was not to create a human being.
Those opposed to hESC research do so largely from a religious perspective, although the position taken by different religious groups varies. Among the Christian community, the Catholic Church is one of the most conservative as it opposes embryonic stem cell research of any kind as it sees it as a destruction of innocent human life. Positions of Protestant sects range from the most liberal to the most conservative (Freedman, 2008, p. 21). According to Meyer, “The fundamental criteria for making moral judgments about technical questions in bioethics are the inviolable integrity of each individual human life and the special nature of the transmission of life. The most salient feature of the first criterion is the belief that the human soul is created immediately by God and that the unity of the body/soul composite obviates abuse of the body at any stage of development.” On the argument of supporters that a blastocyst is not a human being, Meyer contends that it is, for it “contains a complete genome and all that is needed to develop into an adult human being”. With this in mind, the destruction of a human embryo also destroys the potential for a future life that will not reach fulfillment and whose value will be lost. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) say that the argument “that scientists who kill embryos for their stem cells are not actually depriving anyone of life, because they are using “spare” or unwanted embryos who will die anyway”, is not valid (On Embryonic Stem Cell Research, USCCB, June 2008). While each of us will ultimately die, that does not give anyone a right to kill us.
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Those opposed to hESC research are not against stem cell research as some supporters contend. The Catholic Church for instance support research using stem cells from adult tissue, umbilical cord blood and placenta (On Embryonic Stem Cell Research, USCCB, June 2008). Additionally, leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) welcomed the idea when scientists proposed the possibility of obtaining hESC or its equivalent without creating or harming embryos. Clearly, the Catholic Church is in favor of ethically acceptable stem cell research. One that does not destroy human life at any stage of development, as life must be respected at all times especially when the goal is to save lives.
Embryonic stem cell research holds great promise and potential for curing devastating illness. However, the manner of obtaining hESC has been subject to much debate because it currently involves destroying an embryo. Does the hope for greater good as supporters contend erase the wrong of directly taking innocent human lives? What happens if all the “spare” embryos are gone? Would scientists continue to fertilize donated egg cells in a lab and contend that they are not taking innocent lives because the intention was not to create a human being anyway? Where do we draw the line when it comes to dignity of life? Is human embryonic stem cell research ethically acceptable? Probably not at its current state but it can be at some point. Subsequent research can be justified as long as stem cells can be obtained in a manner that does not harm the embryo.
- Clemmit, Marcia. “Stem Cell Research.” CQ Researcher by CQ Press, library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre2006090100.
- Current State Laws Against Human Embryo Research, www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/stem-cell-research/catholic-support-for-ethically-acceptable-stem-cell-research.cfm.
- Devolver, Katrien. The Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research. First ed. 2015.Issues in Biomedical Ethics. Print.
- Freedman, J. (2008). America debates stem cell research (1st ed.). New York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
- Meyer, John R. “Human Embryonic Stem Cells and Respect for Life.” Journal of Medical Ethics, June 2000, p. 166. Student Resources In Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A65133251/SUIC?u=regis_jhs&sid=SUIC&xid=de9a28f2. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.
- Steinbock, Bonnie. “The Morality of Killing Human Embryos.” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 2006, p. 26. Student Resources In Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A143482330/SUIC?u=regis_jhs&sid=SUIC&xid=f24574cb. Accessed 1 Dec. 2018.
- “Stem Cell Basics.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics.htm.
- todohert, Author. “Is the Catholic Church against All Forms of Stem Cell Research?” Institute of Catholic Bioethics, 11 Jan. 2016, sites.sju.edu/icb/is-the-catholic-church-against-all-forms-of-stem-cell-research/.
- Vogel, Gretchen. “Studies cast doubt on plasticity of adult cells. (Stem Cell Research).” Science, vol. 295, no. 5562, 2002, p. 1989+. Student Resources In Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A84370024/SUIC?u=regis_jhs&sid=SUIC&xid=9b159447. Accessed 1 Dec. 2018.
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