Stem cell research could be a scientific miracle, or it could be an unethical disaster. This debate between medical science and ethical judgment has been going on for years, and has recently become a major topic. Not too long ago, the stem cell research funding was cut off by President Bush. He explained his actions by stating, “If this bill would have become law, American taxpayers would, for the first time in our history, be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos. And I’m not going to allow it”(Stem Cells Timeline) Ever since the discovery of cells that can replicate a specialized cell and self-renew by mitosis, also called stem cells, scientists have been wondering where the research might go. Now that the funding has been somewhat restored by President Obama, scientists in the U.S. have a chance to find out.
However, the funding restored might not be enough. The first official trial of human embryonic cells was halted when the company, Geron©, ran out of funding in 2011. There’s been very little effort in using stem cells to heal injuries, and more efforts toward finding an alternative to embryonic stem cells. There is plenty of potential in the use of stem cells, but it is mostly speculation due to ethical issues. The research that could be done using stem cells could potentially cure several diseases, so we must continue further studies.
There are two main types of stem cells; they are called adult and embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells can be found in some tissues and organs. They are called adult stem cells because they are from an organism that is fully formed. They can be found in children as well as adults, and there is no controversy due to the fact they don’t require the destruction of embryos. Embryonic stem cells are the center of the controversy. Most embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro—in an in vitro fertilization clinic—and then donated for research purposes with consent of the donors.
They are not usually taken from an egg fertilized in a woman’s body(Stem Cell Basics). Research with stem cells has a lot of potential. The great thing about stem cells is that they aren’t really a specific type of cells. Scientists might be able to change the cells into whatever type is needed. They could become, blood cells, liver cells, or brain cells. Where are scientists getting these cells? Until recently, most of stem cells used in research came from unwanted embryos stored at in-vitro fertilization clinics. If potential parents decide against having more children, scientists working with stem cells might ask them to donate the extra embryos to research.
In another method that seems to cause the most controversy, scientists can also pull stem cells from aborted fetuses, first asking for signed permission from a patient who’d decided to abort her pregnancy. This is the method most often emphasized by pro-life activists who oppose supporting stem cell research(Reaves, The Great Debate over Stem Cell Research) The problem with stem cell research using embryos is the fact that it requires the destruction of human embryos. Scientists would have to kill an embryo in order to harvest the stem cells. Since an embryo is technically a human being, killing it to benefit others is immoral.
The possibility of creating human subjects for the purpose of destructive research caused Congress to ban federally funded embryo research in 1996. Currently, the law states (under Section 511 of the Labor/HHS Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 1999) that federal funds cannot be used to create or destroy human embryos for research purposes. After the Nuremberg Trials in 1948, the United States joined other nations in creating protocols for human experimentation.
Those protocols state that no human can be used in medical experiments without his/her full knowledge and permission. If that person cannot give consent, a parent or guardian can be appointed to make the decision. No experiment should be conducted when there is a reason to believe that death or permanent injury will happen. Concern for the person always prevails over science and society. When a mother consents to an abortion, she is no longer the protector of the child’s best interest. She can’t give authentic consent to destructive research because there is no attempt to serve the child’s best interest (Klusendorf, Moral Objections to Embryonic Stem Cell Research) Not to mention, scientists aren’t sure stem cell transplants will work.
One experiment in Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York shows what could happen to transplant recievers. The team of scientists injected the cells into the brains of rats, that had been given a chemical that causes damage similar to Parkinson’s. The new cells integrated into the animals’ brains and produced dopamine. As a result, the animals’ motor coordination improved almost to the point of being normal. But when the animals were autopsied after three months and their brains were examined, the team found multiple tumors, indicating that some of the injected cells did not settle into the job of being neurons but rather had begun to grow uncontrollably(Weiss, “Stem Cell Work Shows Promise and Risks.”).
The fact that stem cell transplants are going on, even with these discoveries, is shocking and unnerving. Other risks with stem cell transplants are graft-versus-host disease, stem cell graft failure, organ injury, infections, cataracts, infertility, new cancers, and death. (Mayo Clinic Staff, Risks) Other risk is psychological disrespect. The more something bad is emphasized, whether in life or the media, we become numb to it. If embryonic stem cell therapies, transplants, and research become routine, human embryos could be used as a source of materials, decreasing respect for human life. This is the beginning of a slope leading to scenarios like embryo farms, cloned babies and fetuses used for spare parts.
The benefits of stem cell research using embryonic stem cells far outweigh the risks. Those stem cells are thought by most scientists and researchers to hold potential cures for spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, dozens of rare immune system and genetic disorders and much more. Scientists could use the stem cells to understand human development, how diseases grow, and how to treat them. Over 100 million Americans and even more people worldwide have diseases that could be treated by stem cells. The amount of lives that could be saved is amazing, and all because of stem cells.
Stem cells could also be used to test drugs. For example, cancer cells created from stem cells could be used to test potential antitumor drugs(Pro Stem Cell Research). These cells could also be used to make organs. Right now, donated organs are what are used in transplants, but the need outweighs the supply. There are over 100,000 people in the United States that are on a waiting list for organs. By using stem cells could create organs and tissues, we could prevent almost a dozen deaths a week with transplants.
In most cases, the embryos are simply a ball of cells. The way someone should think about this is to put themselves in the position of a patient or a relative of a patient who is in an amazing amount of pain and could die unless stem cells are used. If you were in that situation, would you value your own life or the life of someone you love above a ball of cells?(Caplan, “Framing the Issue.”) Stem cell research has potential. It could change so many lives, more for better than for worse. People’s lives could be saved, and shouldn’t something come from those aborted fetuses? People who didn’t get a chance to live could help others get their chance.
There are ways to ethically collect stem cells. One such way is similar to cloning an embryo. The only difference would be that the nucleus from the donor cell, that has its chromosomal DNA and is genetically altered, would be placed into a recipient egg without a nucleus. The genetic alteration would prevent the resulting egg from growing into an embryo, but it would live long enough so that stem cells could be collected. This technique is called altered nuclear transfer, or ANT.
There is also another technique that requires harvesting still-living stem cells from embryos declared clinically dead. This technique would use embryos that are frozen and produced in vitro fertilization. Both of these techniques work theoretically, but are still at the experimental stage. (America Press, 2004). There are other experimental ways, but nothing has been proven yet. Stem cells are an issue like the issue of abortion; It all depends on your point of view. Some people will always disagree, and some people will only think of the potential.