The controversy surrounding Stem Cell Research is as old as the process itself; it is claimed to hold the key, or rather in a medical context; to hold the cure to many of the diseases that were once thought incurable. On one side “Research must continue” and the other “No it must not,” one need not to spend much time contemplating to realize it is a dilemma that is before us. Before delving into this; what is Stem Cell Research? This article would give an overview of it and examine both sides of this quandary.
Stem cells are cells that have the ability to divide for an indefinite amount of time, and in so doing; it gives rise to specialized cells. Stem cells also serve as an internal repair system in many tissues, which is why it is necessary for it to divide without restraint; as there is the need to restore other cells.“When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle-cell, a red-blood cell, or a brain-cell.”[i] Stem cells originate from two sources: Embryos and Adult tissue cells. Adult (somatic) stem cells can be found through out the body after embryonic development and they exist inside different types of tissue. They stay non-dividing for a longtime; until activated by disease or injury. Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that are in the blastocyst phase of development (an embryo that is 4 to 5 days old). Stems cells are also categorized by potency, their ability to differentiate into other cell types, depending on their stage of development. A complete classification would include the following:
Totipotent: The capacity to differentiate into all potential cell types (e.g., zygote formed at egg fertilization).
Pluripotent: The capability to differentiate into nearly all cell types (e.g., embryonic stem cells).
Multipotent: The capability to differentiate into a family of directly related cells (e.g., hematopoietic [adult] stem cells that can become red and white blood cells or platelets).
Oligopotent: The capability to differentiate into a few cells (e.g., [adult] lymphoid or myeloid stem cells.
Unipotent: The capacity to produce only cells of their own kind, but have the characteristics of self renewal that is required to be labeled a stem cell (e.g., [adult] muscle stem cells).[ii]
Of all the potencies described, pluripotent (cell) is the most distinct as it can form any cell within the body. Having given an overview of what stem cells are, the next question evidently is: What is Stem Cell Research? To give a brief summary of it, Stem Cell Research enables scientist to study the manner by which an organism develops and grow, it also enables them to study the fashion by which tissues are maintained during an adult’s life. The study of stem cells is also helping scientists make progress in testing new drugs, study diseases and consequently develop efficient treatments, as noted “The goal of any stem cell therapy is to repair a damaged tissue that can’t heal itself. This might be accomplished by transplanting stem cells into the damaged area and directing them to grow new, healthy tissue. It may also be possible to coax stem cells already in the body to work overtime and produce new tissue.”[iii] With this clarified, why is it embedded in so much controversy? Before giving an analysis; it is essential to examine both sides of the argument.
The issue over the years seems to have changed in structure, it only appears so; it is of the same content; and consequently of the same subject. It is highlighted by the same notion that embryonic stem cell research is unethical. Of the two kinds of stem cells, embryonic stem cells have drawn the most criticism; which is now generally attributed to Stem Cell Research as a whole. The pro-lifers attempt to hold two positions; they claim that they are not against Stem Cell Research per-se; and that they support adult stem cell research, and that their disagreements with advocates arose from embryonic-stem cell research; that which devalues human life. In the course of these arguments; the question surrounding abortion re-surfaces, that is; ‘Are Embryos forms of life?’ Regardless of arguments and classifications that show otherwise, the pro-lifers insist that an embryo is a human-being. The advocates of embryonic stem cell research respond ‘The tiny blastocyst has no human features.’ And that ‘New stem cell-lines already exist due to the common practice of in-vitro fertilization.’ The pro –lifers at this point attack in vitro fertilization by saying ‘it too is unethical.” Circular is the name of such arguments; while people desperately in need of this medical technique die.
Amongst this group (pro-life) some further claim that such practice is playing God, as mentioned “The supporters of embryo-destructive research want to cross a great moral divide. They are seeking not only to destroy human life made in God’s image but also to manufacture life made in man’s image.”[iv] The response to this is simple ‘Man was endowed with reason,’ a whole different argument in itself, one that will cover numerous pages and chapters. Other pro-life arguments include the notion that human-beings are being turned into a commodity. The Dickey-Wicker amendment sums up and enforces the pro-life views against stem-cell research. It prohibits all funding where a human embryo is destroyed; that which has dominated the news since it’s passage (even though researchers have consistently proven to the contrary). An understanding of Stem Cell’s prospects can not be realized until this tug of war is brought to a halt, as noted “Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to problems that occur somewhere in this process. A better understanding of normal cell development will allow us to understand and perhaps correct the errors that cause these medical conditions” (NIH 2009).
To better grasp this issue; it needs to be placed back in context; saving lives. Though some of these opposing views are not without merit, it is evident that the benefits outweigh the ethical concerns. If there is a potential avenue for curing a disease, it must be pursued; with zero limitations. Though there will be situations where this process will be used in pure-vanity, e.g., facial make-up, as addressed “Scientists who favor stem cell research are upset by the promotion of these injections.”[v] However, one must not base one’s argument on such narcissistic- vanity. The dilemma arising from Stem Cell Research is social, legal, scientific, and for those that really need it; psychological. So what are the prospects of stem cell research? It is claimed that it might help cure Spinal cord injury, Diabetes, Heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Arthritis, Sickle anemia, Organ failure and not to mention HIV. If that’s the case, why interfere and obstruct a research that will possibly eradicate these diseases? We live in an utilitarian system where what is better for the whole should always prevail; take all the diseases that could be cured on the advocate’s side and weigh it against what is presented on the con-side; it is without logic that one arrives at the notion that saving lives in non-ethical. What is non-ethical; is denying treatment to those that will benefit from the fruits of the research. Who benefits from the fruits of stem cell research? Mankind. Who benefits from ‘No stem cell research arguments and legislation?’ Nobody.
Though the process was allowed to move forward, it is not clear at this moment whether it would again be interfered with. Generally, medicine evolved from administering leaves and roots; to actually being able to see what the problem is through MRIs’ (as seen today). Stem Cell Research offers possibilities that were once thought impossible, administered through a system that is itself worthy of applause; it is the future of medicine.
[iii] Genetic Science Learning Center (2010, May 28) What is the Goal of Stem Cell Research? Learn Genetics. Retrieved September 14, 2010, from http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/tech/stemcells/scresearch/
[iv]The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (2010, July, 17) Quotes on Stem Cell Research. Retrieved September 14, 2010, from http://pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Quotes-on-Stem-Cell-Research-from-Political,-Religious-and-Other-Prominent-Figures.aspx
[v] Steven Ertelt (n.d.). Aborted Baby Tissue Used for Cosmetic Injections. Retrieved September 14, 2010, from, The Endowment for Medical Research Web site: http://www.endowmentmed.org/content/view/615/33/
International Society for Stem Cell Research: http://www.isscr.org.