Molecular Biology

Arguments for and against Stem Cell Research



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Stem cells are normally harvested from embryos but over recent years, medical breakthrough has allowed the discovery of stem cells from organs and tissues in adults. As a result, there has been an increase in tremendous support for adult stem cell technology due to reasons I will explain later.

We live in a world full of diseases today. Many of them are incurable. Stem cell technology allows new methods of effective treatment to be explored. Stem cells are cells which have pluripotent potential. They have the ability to differentiate into any kind of cells of the body they're from. This of course opens up new frontiers in the treatment of diseases like neurological conditions (Alzheimer's and Parkinson's) or cancer. For example, neurological diseases are normally associated with loss of brain cells. Through stem cell technology, we can incorporate new cells to replace damaged ones and hence leading to a better prognosis for the patient.

There are currently 2 known sources of stem cells, namely embryos and adults (normal human beings). Embryonic stem cells are harvested from embryos. These embryos are then discarded hence of course, leading to some ethical issues. Adult stem cells on the other hand are harvested from organs in human beings. There are dormant stem cells in some of our organs which have not differentiated to the specific cells of the organ. They serve as replacements when old ones are damaged or when they need to be replaced. Examples of adult stem cells that are involved in the ongoing turnover of cells are those in the bone marrow (giving rise to the various types of cell in blood), skin, gut and respiratory tract while populations of stem cells in locations such as the liver and muscle are involved in repairing tissue damage. The use of adult stem cells does not have the ethical problems surrounding embryonic stem cells. The only difference between them is that embryonic stem cells have more potential to differentiate into any kind of cell in the body than adult stem cells. Adult stem cells are limited by the site they are harvested from. They are also smaller in numbers and harder to isolate. They can only differentiate to cells which they are from.

Some of the stakeholders at hand here are such as the life of embryos, the patient being treated and the healthcare profession. If these embryos are used solely for the purpose of their stem cells, we risk undervaluing the significance of one life. In vitro fertilization may be conducted for the sole purpose of harvesting stem cells. Who are we to decide that one life should be given more importance over another? Elaborating on that, the reproductive capability of a human being is something very precious and should not be taken advantage of. If embryonic stem cells were banned, we are denying a patient's rights to a normal life or the ability to enjoy life with their loved ones. We might even deny the right of a human being to a normal happy family. Another stakeholder in this scenario would be the parents where the embryo is extracted from. What would they feel if their child' was used for some scientific experiment?

To come to an ethical position on this issue I will be using the ethical framework rights and duties. Rights based ethics states that ethical actions are based on an acknowledgment that human beings have certain rights. We are therefore obliged to act so that those rights are honored and exercised. Duty based ethics states that we have certain absolute duties to others. What those duties are can be determined by reason and rational thought, and they are considered to be morally imperative. If embryonic stem cells were banned, you would deny the possibility of an effective form of treatment for life-threatening diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. Every human being has a right to a normal life; by banning embryonic stem cells, we are denying these patients a form of treatment. Then again, by doing so, we are discarding the rights of the embryos. This has more significance as we are expected to defend the rights of those who cannot fight for themselves. How do we justify the loss of one life for another to be gained? Looking from another perspective, scientists are tasked with the responsibility of discovering new frontiers for the betterment of mankind. By banning embryonic stem cell research, we are limiting their field of work and hence maybe denying the discovery of new effective treatment methods. At the same time we are not obliged to provide them with permission to manipulate life or the potential of life. I guess the only way to go about this would be through effective legislations and guidelines from the governing bodies.

In November last year, New York Times reported an article which may help end the war between supporters and opponents of stem cell research. Prof Thomson, the first person who isolated stem cells from embryos and in the process discarding them discovered that he could create embryonic stem cells from normal skin cells without using embryos at all. Together with Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, he discovered that by just adding 4 genes to the cells, the cells would look, so far like stem cells. He concluded that more work lies ahead but now at least the path is somewhat clearer as it avoids some of the ethical implications related to the use of embryos.

I cannot come to an outright position right now on this issue as I believe more research is needed for the use of embryonic stem cells. Today, there are more funds available for adult stem cell research as it does not create so much of an ethical issue as compared to embryonic stem cells. Hence, there have been success stories with adult stem cell research obviously due to more funds available for it. We can't really compare embryonic stem cell research with adult stem cells. In my opinion, there should not be an outright ban on embryonic stem cells as by doing that, we are denying the rights of patients which may benefit from this. Then again, we must consider the rights of the embryos also. In conclusion, I believe that more research should be conducted before such an extreme decision like banning embryonic stem cells be made.

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