Stem cells have been known to be an important part of life since the early 1900’s, but it was in 1998 where researchers found a way to extract stem cells from the human blastocyst and examine these cells in the lab (Thomson et al, 1998). We now know these cells as embryonic stem cells or pluripotent stem cells, which contain the ability to differentiate into any other type of cell in the body. As stem cell research pushed further, we were able to identify various other types of stem cells, such as adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. In this essay, we will be talking about why we believe that stem cell research is beneficial for science, more so than the ethical concerns that they may create. For example, there is a clear benefit of using embryonic stem cells, the ability to create new cells can be beneficial in treating health problems such as stroke by creating new neurons. (Marei et al, 2018). However, in obtaining embryonic stem cells you must terminate the embryos growth resulting in a loss of potential human life. Although the research is in its infancy, the possibility of stem cells becoming a major form of treatment is getting even closer than before, but before research continues it is essential to consider all the ethical issues that may be created.
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One argument for stem cell research revolves around the discussion of In-Vitro fertilization. This is a process, which occurs in a test tube, involving the fusion of a spermatozoon and an egg cell, synthesizing a diploid cell called a zygote. This procedure is for partners who have fertility difficulties in conceiving, and it is extremely expensive, time-consuming and complex. In fact, the chances of success, “for women under 35 who start an IVF cycle is 40%” (Attain Fertility, 2010). According to research collected by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, “nearly 1.7 million embryos were discarded unused” (The Telegraph, 2012), embryos that could have possibly been used for stem cell research. This illustrates that the possibility to use the discarded embryo was available and this could have been used to further our understanding on this new field and could have extended research on an illness as well as providing a counter argument for the ethical aspects.
The major use of stem cell research is in the hope to cure many diseases. For example, Coronary heart disease (CHD) has caused a large amount of deaths in the UK compared to any other disease. Statistics from the British Heart Foundation 2018 states “25% of all UK deaths are caused by heart and circulatory diseases”. Clearly if stem cell research could find a breakthrough to cure this disease, it would be revolutionary, and this is exactly what the London Chest Hospital are trying to do with the use of stem cells (Explorable, 2008). CHD is caused by atherosclerosis, which is simply the build-up of cholesterol and lipids in the walls of the coronary arteries. This results in a weak heart, as there is less blood flow to the cardiac muscle and can lead to a heart attack and of course, death. A team led by Professor Antony Mathur are trying to use adult stem cells from the bone marrow to strengthen the stem cells in the heart, so they can start to differentiate and replace those that are damaged.
Furthermore, if a patient’s heart is damaged to the point that they suffer from heart failure, they may be eligible for a heart transplant. However, there are many implications involved, with the biggest being that your body possess a high risk of rejection, and your immune system may attack the foreign cells. But what if you could grow the heart needed tor the transplant using your very own stem cells? Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have managed to use stem cells to produce cardiac tissue (Popular Science, 2016). This shows that investing into stem cell research has produced results that may change the future of treatment.
The previous example described the use of either adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells. Overall, different types of stem cells have been used to treat different types of disorders, for example: Hematopoietic stem cells (HCS) are found in red bone marrow cells and are a type of stem cell that differentiates into different types of blood cells. HCS are widely used to treat autoimmune diseases such as Systematic Sclerosis and Rheumatoid Arthritis (Ramaswamy et al, 2016). Systematic Sclerosis is an autoimmune disease of the skin which can also affect functioning of internal organs such as the lungs (NHS, 2018). Researchers believed that this condition could be treated with HCS transplant, so they conducted experiments. This works through a process that aims to reset the auto-reactive immune system of the individual by eliminating auto reactive lymphocytes. It was found that 10 individuals treated with HCS transplant showed improvements in the method of measurement (skin scores) compared to the 9 without the transplant, as well as showing improvements in lung functioning. (Ramaswamy et al, 2016). This once again shows that approving stem cell research worldwide, may lead to positive results for treating various conditions at a faster rate.
On the other hand, this relatively new breakthrough in stem cell research shows that we are unable to accurately predict the long-term effects of being able to interfere with natural processes in the body against natures wishes. This uncertainty could delay people’s decisions in taking part with the therapy as the side effects are unknown and could be dangerous. Future problems down the line could be severe or even in some cases, fatal, however our lack of concrete knowledge on this topic leads to doubts. The expense of a solitary stem cell treatment that has been affirmed for use in the United States and is on average around $2,500 – $4,999 (Swijenburg et al, 2008). The expense of collecting an embryo for undifferentiated cells is up to $2,000 per case. This costly procedure makes this therapy unavailable to many people as it proves to be costly and only a choice for wealthier patients. This proves to be an unjust system as why should someone who’s richer benefit over someone who isn’t, how can you put saving someone’s life over another with money being the determinant?
In addition, embryonic stem cells may not be the answer to all illnesses, some may be incurable regardless of any therapy and the blanket statement of stem cells could cure any affliction is false. A disadvantage of most adult stem cells is that they can be pre-specialised for example blood stem cells make only blood cells thus limiting the range of cells they can differentiate to. Without iPS reprogramming, adult stem cells have an already decided cell type, implying they can’t be changed into various cell tissues. This limits the use of stem cells as a treatment option to only the place from which they were obtained.
Furthermore, if the stem cells derived from are not from the patient there is a possibility the patients won’t respond well to the treatment and reject it. According to Joseph Wu (knoepfler 2008), a co-author of a study appearing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, it was found that stem cells derived from a foreign embryo will be detected by the immune system, contrary to the belief that they may slip past the immune system. This shows that the cost of obtaining and using the stem cells, in terms of cost and potential harm to the patient, may be a lot greater than any potential benefits leading to an overall unsuccessful process.
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Another negative aspect of stem cell research is that embryonic stem cell use raises ethical issues for religion communities, such as those of Abrahamic faiths. Members of faiths such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism would not agree to the concept of using potential human life as a resource for science. In their eyes, life is a gift from god, thus only god has the right to take this life away (Explorable, 2008). In addition to religious communities, those who support the idea of Pro-Life believe that all life is precious, that even a foetus has a voice that should not be ignored. Not only is this from a religious point of view, but also from a moral point of view, they believe that one life should not be compromised for another. The idea that embryonic stem cells can be discarded for science is regarded as unethical, and that we are simply killing one potential life to save another (Fox News, 2015).
Embryonic stem cell research also disputes moral issues and competes with Natural Moral Law. This is an ethical decision-making criterion which was proposed by Thomas Aquinas. Stem cell research would violate all of Aquinas’ Moral Laws, especially the moral law of self-preservation and preservation of the innocent Perhaps the continual mis-use of embryos for research would lead to a disorder in society. This may lead to neo-eugenics, designer babies and therefore discrimination against those with what could be considered undesirable genes. The Universal Declaration on the Human Genome declares in Article 18, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom’. It is suggested that this includes the rights of the unborn foetus. UNESCO hopes that these laws will be incorporated into many more national laws. These laws specifically prohibit the use of genetic manipulation to improve humans (Lachmann, 2001). Vigilance will certainly always be needed to prevent the misuse of this technology. This misuse could lead to an immortal population and therefore generate its own problems. For example, if the continual misuse of stem cells continues and authoritative figures get a hold of such technology (which in no doubt, they will!) they may allow the discrimination of certain features or disease which are naturally occurring. This incorporation of new technology into scientific Darwinism will affect the evolutionary process and almost always form an optimal phenotype (Lachmann, 2001). Many people believe with such advanced technologies it is possible to form an Arian Race once again.
Recent research however, has shown that we can now turn human skin cells into pluripotent stem cells by activating the cells own genes (Science Daily, 2018). Not only does this allow us to gain the same properties as embryonic stem cells but it also results in a significantly lower number of embryos being used for scientific testing. This also helps solve the issue of embryonic stem cells potentially being rejected due to them being considered foreign cells, since we can form the pluripotent cells within the individual without mutating the genome. It is also worthwhile to think about the idea of potential life. As mentioned before the stem cells come from the blastocyst (Thomson et al, 1998) which is formed before the embryo is formed, so in a way we are not exactly killing or using an embryo.
Overall, embryonic stem cell research is not favoured by many groups such as religious communities and the Pro-life community. This is due to ethical and moral clashes, mainly around the idea that life is a gift from god and is sacred, and that the foetus should have the same rights as any other human. Widespread stem cell usage also raises the question of whether stem cells will be used for their original purpose, there is no guarantee that in the future genetics will be manipulated to form a potential society of genetical engineered babies leading to wider social issues such as discrimination against those with less desirable genes or the formation of an Aryan race. As supporters of stem cell research, we believe that the ethical and moral argument isn’t as strong as it once was, since most stem cell research now comes from adult stem cells and from induced pluripotent stem cells. Research found that we are now able to create stem cells from different cells e.g. skin cells, meaning that we no longer require using or disposing of embryos. Although costly, not all scientific advancements in the past would have started out cheap, but as research continued and treatments become widespread, surely the cost will also go down in the future. Having invested billions worldwide in stem cell research, giving up now will not only waste all this funding, but also the advancements that science has made with stem cells over the past decade.
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- Attain Fertility, 2010. IVF Success Factors. [Online] Available from: https://attainfertility.com/understanding-fertility/ivf-101/ivf-success-factors/ [Accessed 28 November 2018]
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- Swijenburg, R.J. et al., 2008. Immunosuppressive therapy migrates immunological rejection of human embryonic stem cell xenographs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [online] Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/105/35/12991 [Accessed 30/11/18]
- Knoepfler, P., 2008. – Update on stem cell treatment cost for 2018 from ongoing poll.[Online] Available from: https://ipscell.com/2018/04/update-on-stem-cell-treatment-cost-for-2018-from-ongoing-poll/ [Accessed 28 November 2018]
- Fox News, 2015. The Cases For and Against Stem Cell Research. [Online] Available at: https://www.foxnews.com/story/the-cases-for-and-against-stem-cell-research [Accessed 30 November 2018]
- Science Daily, 2018. New method for turning skin cells into pluripotent stem cells. [Online] Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180706091723.htm [Accessed 2 December 2018)
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