Ethics and Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research has been one of the most widely discussed issues nowadays. It has medical, scientific, social, economic, political, and moral implications that make it a critical issue worth debating.A stem cell is a type of cell that has the potential to develop into other types such as heart, nerve, and muscle cells. It is basically classified into two kinds: adult and embryonic stem cells, depending on their origin.Since they can develop into other types of cell, there exists a possibility that they can be used as a form of therapy for diseases due to cell damage. Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes are some of the diseases due to the inability of certain cells to reproduce. With the discovery of stem cells, the cure for these diseases may have been found as well.However, the ethics of the researches regarding stem cells have been put into question. To obtain an embryonic stem line, for example, requires the destruction of an embryo. Whether or not it is morally and socially acceptable to destroy an embryo to give way for the possibility that it can in turn save more lives remains a debatable topic of today. Another controversy on the issue involves the rights to life which an embryo or a “group of cells” is entitled to.Nonetheless, researches have recognized the potential use of stem cells in providing cure for the world’s most prominent diseases. Some successful researches have already given way to medical treatments using stem cells.This paper reviews background information on stem cell research and cites recent developments on the topic. Moreover, different points of views regarding the moral implications of the subject matter are also presented. THE PROBLEMThe main conflict on stem cell research does not involve the use of stem cells for medical purposes per se but the source of the stem cells being used for the experiments.In vitro fertilization often results in the fertilization of more than one egg. Thus, excess embryos exist. Embryonic stem cells are obtained from these embryos. On the other hand, an adult stem cell is obtained from differentiated cells of tissues or organs since one of its functions is for repair and cell renewal. They can also be found in the bone marrow (National Institute of Health [NIH], 2006).Besides their origin, embryonic and adult stem cells also differ in their capacity to develop to other cell types. Since embryonic cells are formed earlier and are completely undifferentiated, they have a greater potential to develop into various cells. However, adult stem cells often are limited to develop only into cells which are subtypes of their tissue or organ of origin. For example, hematopoietic stem cells give rise to all the types of blood cells such as red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.Embryonic stem cells are thus said to have a greater potential for use in medical treatments. They are also easier to obtain and culture as compared to adult stem cells. However, greater moral implications are also posed by the use of embryonic stem cells in research. Spare embryos are often destroyed to produce an embryonic stem line which would serve as a source for these cells. Some critics equate this to destroying a life or murder for scientific purposes while some argue that these embryos are not intended to live in the first place and they could prove to be more useful in research.  CONCEPTSA fertilized egg or a zygote would further divide into cells and this creates stem cells which would then give rise to differentiated cells. As mentioned earlier, stem cells generally can develop into other types of cells. A certain stimuli or instructions from genes may bring about their differentiation into blood, brain, skin cells, and other types. As the cells continue to divide, eventually giving way to human growth and development, a portion of stem cells becomes stored in every organ of the body. What separates stem cells from other cell types is basically their capacity to create other cell types.In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, stem cells function in the formation of tissues in the heart, lung, skin, and others. In some adult tissues, the few stored stem cells function in cell renewal for tissue damage due to an injury or disease (NIH, 2006).Stem cell lines are formed by isolating stem cells and culturing them in a laboratory dish. Since a supply of stem cells is needed for research, a stem cell line serves as such. In time, they tend to lose their ability to differentiate into a wide range of cells. Versatility comes with age and a younger stem cell would be more flexible in terms of differentiation as compared to an adult one. Cells from the bone marrow, however, seem to retain their ability to specialize into any cell type (“Stem Cell”, 2006).Embryonic stem cells and those from the bone marrow are the ones which have the greatest potential for use in medical treatment.POSSIBLE SOLUTIONSSince the use of embryonic stem cells in research is a highly controversial issue, some studies have focused on the use of adult stem cells and on the search for other alternative sources of stem cells such as the amniotic fluid.Adult stem cell research has shown effective outcomes in terms of medical treatment. Osiris Therapeutics Inc.’s recently affirmed the efficacy of stem cell treatment in helping in the recovery of patients who have suffered a heart attack within the past 10 days. Stem cells were administered intravenously to patients. As a result, their hearts pumped 25 percent more efficiently both three months and six months after treatment (Waters, 2007).In the United States, there are already a number of treatments via adult stem cell approved for medical use. These are cells are obtained from bone marrows. The use of adult stem cells also eliminates the risks of immunological rejection since they come from the patient.Alternative sources are also being studied since they would somehow reconcile the scientific and ethical arguments regarding stem cell research.The amniotic stem-cell study performed at Wake Forest University School of Medicine is an example. It has found that the capacity for cell differentiation of the amniotic stem cells is comparable to that of embryonic stem cells (St. Anthony Messenger, 2007).An article in National Geographic (as cited by St. Anthony Messenger, 2007) report on a man whose bone marrow stem cells were able to repair his heart which had experienced problems. Another case was a lupus patient who also received stem cells from her own bone marrow. She previously had two incidences of stroke but after the treatment, she was reported to have successfully recovered.Adult stem cells as well as those obtained from the placenta, umbilical cord, and amniotic fluid are generally accepted since they do not involve the controversial issue on embryos. Researches on stem cells using amniotic fluid, umbilical cord, and placenta as sources rely on donors.;INFORMATIONRecently, the US has approved a bill encouraging the use of embryonic stem cells for research as long as no direct destruction of embryos is involved. In the previous years, federal funding was offered but only for researches using already existing spare embryos.In vitro fertilization is performed in more than 360 laboratories in the US. The process usually involves the extraction of 24 ova from the woman to which a sperm would be introduced. Typically, two to four resultant embryos are selected to be implanted on the woman’s womb. Among these embryos, one is expected to develop, thus a pregnancy follows. The excess embryos are then either discarded or stored in liquid nitrogen. Failure to induce impregnation often uses these stored embryos to repeat the procedure. Some of these embryos are also used for research, with the consent of the donors. However, some of them are indeed simply discarded by some clinics (Robinson, 2002).The acquisition of embryonic stem cells utilizes these spare embryos.The spare embryos are first thawed. The inner cell mass of an embryo is then extracted, leaving only stem cells. This process indeed involves the destruction of an embryo (Robinson, 2002).ASSUMPTIONS AND POINTS OF VIEWThere are different points of views regarding stem cell research using embryonic stem cells. While most pro-life critics argue that such researches are a crime since it involves the destruction of an embryo, other embryonic stem cell research supporters refute that the destroyed embryos are only those which are bound to be discarded in any case. Instead of allowing these embryos to be disposed of, they can be better utilized if they are used for researches that would potentially cure diseases. However, the others say that these embryos can still be stored and thus they still have the potential turn into a human being. Destroying an embryo would be equivalent to destroying a human being.An interview with a stem cell researcher, quotes Professor Eggan from Harvard, “I would tend toward the view that the blastocyst does not manifest many of the properties that we associate with humanity” (Cook, 2006). If a human is defined as someone with consciousness, an embryo would not be considered one.However there are people who believe that the union of an egg and a sperm begins life and this is an idea that is not supported by everyone, hence the disagreements.The idea that embryonic stem cells are far superior to adult stem cells is also used by most of its supporters. A substantial part of the scientific community also agrees with this idea and demands that researches be focused on this area.Most scientists and researchers believe that cures for spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, hundreds of rare immune system and genetic disorders and much more lies in the studies with embryonic stem cells. Their versatility in terms of cell differentiation gives them value over adult stem cells. Since they are believed to have a greater potential, they believe that the destruction of embryos would only a secondary consequence relative to the lives it could save in the future (White, n.d.).The superiority of embryonic stem cells, however, is also put into question. Adult stem cell researches are the ones that gave way to the current medical treatments using stem cells today. They have also produced successful results in patients and thus their effectiveness is already established whereas embryonic stem cells are yet to prove their value.;A commentary from the Morning Sentinel (2007) by Paul Bourassa, a diabetes patient, states that:As an insulin-dependent diabetic, I would certainly welcome a cure for diabetes and the other diseases she mentioned, but not if it comes at the cost of another person’s life. If human life begins at conception, as common sense teaches, then fertility treatments that create “excess embryos” are immoral and creating a market for these embryos is contributing to and profiting from the taking of other people’s lives. The ethical choice is not between using them or wasting them; it is between research that respects all human life and research that does not. Embryonic stem-cell research cannot be conducted with the “highest ethical standards.” It can only be conducted by lowering our standards and forgetting our need to protect the sanctity of life.MORAL REASONINGIn scientific terms, differentiating a human from others species involves a difference in genetic make-up. We, humans, might only be 10% or less different from other species in terms of DNA compatibility. However, it is a fact that a 10% difference separates us from them, and this makes us superior than them. It makes us humans.The union of a sperm cell and an egg gives way to the formation of a unique set of DNA. This is the DNA that is 10% different from other species. This is the DNA that makes that one cell, that zygote, a human being.Life begins the moment a sperm fuses with an egg cell.That one cell is already entitled to the same set of rights as those of an infant, a toddler, a teenager, or an adult. These set of rights involve the right to live and to survive. If we, in anyway, deprive a zygote or an embryo of that right, it would be equivalent to killing someone.It is not a question whether the destruction of an embryo would be equivalent to taking the life of a human being. The embryo, or the zygote even, is already a human being.What makes us a person, however, goes far beyond our genetic make-up. Humanity involves the sense of being responsible for your life and the life of others. It involves having a sense of responsibility for our actions.The benefits from stem cell research are well-established. It can, after all, cure what would be the greatest threats to human health. It can save lives, and it is our responsibility to support anything that can be for the good of everyone.However, it is also our responsibility to protect and ensure the existence of others. Supporting the destruction of embryos, destruction of human beings, destruction of lives, is certainly not our responsibility. Moreover, if we do not go against these ideas, we even escape from our duty.Embryonic stem cell research involves the destruction of embryos and it does not matter how “typical” of these embryos not to survive and live. We do not have the right to judge which of these embryos live and which of them are “not wasted” through utilization in research.Morality forbids us to deprive any human being of the right to live. It also gives us a duty to protect life.Researches using adult stem cells or alternatives such as amniotic stem cells give way to the possibility of saving more lives and we should support them. However, embryonic stem cell researches do not protect life but rather destroys it.What makes us a person is our ability to be guided by our morals and more so by our will to follow them.;CONSEQUENCESAllowing embryonic stem cell research would have huge impact on society. It could totally change our beliefs and morals when it comes to humanity.Researches on adult stem cell and others have proven to be successful. However, embryonic stem cell research would be another set of trials and errors. Though it is believed to have a greater potential for breakthroughs, it would also involve risking our beliefs on humanity. If the sole purpose of stem cell research is to have better medical treatments and to save more lives, the current researches using bone marrow or amniotic fluid as sources do have the same results.CONCLUSIONSThe discovery of stem cells is in itself a breakthrough. The possibilities it has brought about are overwhelming including the answers to diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and others. There is no question that this line of research has a promising future.However, as with any other scientific discovery or research breakthrough, we should not forget about the consequences they would have on society and the very beliefs which make us human. We should never sacrifice the promises for the betterment of humanity for humanity itself.Embryonic stem cell research demands such sacrifice. We cannot afford to agree to an idea which risks our own ideals of life. However, the benefits of stem cell research have been made clear. Yet the existence of other options for stem cell research allows us to welcome those benefits. Adult stem cell research and alternatives pose no threat to our morals and would also be beneficiary to human health and survival. We could settle for this and altogether forego the risks, uncertainties, and immorality of embryonic stem cell research.


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