Controversy in Stem Cell Research, Essay Example
Stem cell research is a controversial topic in America today that has inspired passionate feelings in both those that are for it and those that are against it. Medical science is constantly seeking to expand knowledge of the body, health and disease so that cures can be found for deadly disease and people can live happy and healthy lives despite being struck down by crippling illness. Regenerative medicine is that which allows the body to regenerate missing components in order to heal. “Alleviating human suffering is the promise of regenerative medicine and stem cell research in particular (Solo and Pressberg, 2007).” Stem cells are a type of proto-cell that has the ability to turn into any other cell. There are two basic types of stem cells, adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the original stem cells that form the human fetus. Adult stem cells, on the other hand, are stem cells are stored in the human body from birth that stay in certain tissues throughout the body until death. Stem cells serve as a natural repair system, dividing to repair the tissue as it grows old or is damaged (NIH, 2009). Scientists and doctors who study stem cells hold the hope for the 100 million Americans living to day with debilitating disease for which there is currently no cure (Solo and Pressberg, 2007). While everyone agrees that stem cell research promises to bring new cures for disease, the controversy lies in where the stem cells come from. Those who are against stem cell research are against the embryonic type which must removed from a viable fetus. Unfortunately, “the more thoughtful, moral, scientific and medical discussions that have been taking place [regarding stem cell research] have been countered and periodically eclipsed by inflammatory rhetoric, misinformation, hype and sectarian politics from both the left and the right (Solo and Pressbergy, 2007).” In order to move forward with this potentially life saving research, the truth surrounding stem cell research must be understood and the misconceptions that are blackening the field of stem cell research must be dispelled so that scientists can move forward with this beneficial medical research.
There are five types of stem cells that are formed throughout the life of a human: early embryonic stem cells, blastocyst embryonic stem cells, fetal stem cells, umbilical cord stem cells and adult stem cells (University of Utah, 2010). Early embryonic stem cells a special type of stem cell called a totipotent. Totipotent means that the cell has the potential to become any other type of cell in the body (University of Utah, 2010). They are formed right after fertilization of the egg by the sperm. Blastocyst embryonic stem cells are formed seven days after fertilization when the the embryo forms into a blastocyst, a hollow ball like structure in which contains pluripotent embryonic stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to become almost any type of cell in the body (University of Utah 2010). Fetal stem cells, formed during the eighth week of fetus development, are also pluripotent. The early embryonic stem cells, blastocyst embryonic stem cells and fetal stem cells are the stem cells that promote the most controversy since these stem cells can only be obtained from a fetus. The other two types of stem cells, umbilical cord stem cells and adult stem cells, are not controversial because there is no need to end a life in order to obtain these for research or treatment. However, umbilical stem cells and adult stem cells are multipotent stem cells, which means that they only have the ability to turn into a limited number of cell types within the body. In order to get totipotent or pluripotent stem cells, embryos must be created in-vitro in a laboratory clinic and harvested for stem cells. The misinformed may believe that all stem cells are harvested from the in-vitro cultures but this is not the case. Even religious groups such as the Catholic Church condone stem-cell research from adult and umbilical cord stem cells. “In-vitro fertilization is not the only way to obtain stem cells. They can be extracted from adults or from an umbilical cord after a child is born. The Catholic Church has no objection to research using stem cells in those ways (McCloskey, 2010).”
Embryonic stem cells, then, are at the heart of the controversy of stem cell research. If totipotent and pluripotent stem cells could be derived in any other way other than from a fertilized human egg, the controversy would be mute. However, emotions heat up when human life is involved, and rightly so. The moral issue with embryonic stem cells comes from the fear that a human being is being harvested in order to obtain its stem cells. There might be some fear amongst those that oppose stem cell research that aborted babies are being taken for stem cells, but this is also a misconception. Viable embryonic stem cells are only present in a fertilized embryo that is less than 7 days old. Fertilized eggs are grown in-vitro in a laboratory setting using donated fertilized eggs and sperms. Researchers only use eggs and sperm that are donated with the consent of the donors that they are to be used for embryonic stem cell research. Embryonic stem cells are grown in the laboratory as a cell culture. “Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are generated by transferring cells from a preimplantation-stage embryo into a plastic laboratory culture dish that contains a nutrient broth known as a culture medium. The cells divide and spread over the surface of the dish (NIH, 2010).” Embryonic stem cells used for research and treatment are thus never a viable embryo and never have a chance of turning into a human being. For this reason, the moral argument of embryonic stem cell research being done at the expense of a human life is really a point that is null and void.
Limiting the science of regenerative medicine to only those stem cells derived from umbilical or adult sources limits the possibility of its use to cure disease. The stem cells created in the first days after an egg is fertilized have great potential in research because they can turn into almost any other type of cell. However, it will take a great deal of time and research for scientists to discover just how to make a stem cell turn into a heart or liver cell, for example. “The heart of this science is finding the chemical signals that will send the embryonic stem cell into the desired direction so it can be used in therapies in ways now considered impossible with adult stem cells. One of the research challenges is figuring out how to control this differentiation process and harness the results to treat some of the most deadly and costly diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, spinal cord injuries and cancer (Solo and Pressberg, 2007).” While adult and umbilical stem cells still hold the possibility of curing disease, it is from the stem cells that are present only in the first days after fertilization that hold much promise for those living with chronic disease.
There has already been some success in treating disease with embryonic stem cells. In October of 2010, Medical News Today issued an article that announced a grant of $3.9 million that was awarded to Children’s Hospital Boston by the National Institute of Health. The money is to be used to develop a therapy using pluripotent stem cells in patients suffering from Fanconi anemia, a fatal genetic disease. “The researchers will investigate new ways to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from a patient’s skin or other tissue and transform them into genetically repaired hematopoietic stem cells that can make normal blood cells (Medical News Today, 2010).” Embryonic stem cell research offers a hope to those suffering from this disease that usually results in death by age 20. Diabetes sufferers are already benefiting from embryonic stem cell research. “Scientists have already successfully transplanted islet cells into several hundred adults with Type I Diabetes who are in medical danger from complications to their kidneys, eyesight or heart disease. The majority of these people are now either living on much lower doses of insulin or are living insulin free (Solo and Pressberg, 2007).” The potential to eventually cure diabetes using embryonic stem cell research is a possibility that would mean and end to this debilitating disease that affects millions of Americans.
Stem cell research has many useful possibilities in research and the clinic besides curing disease. By studying human embryonic stem cells, scientists can begin to understand the complex and poorly understood events that occur throughout human development. Understanding how stem cells turn into tissues and organs will unlock the mysteries of development, health and disease. “some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to abnormal cell division and differentiation. A more complete understanding of the genetic and molecular controls of these processes may yield more information about how such diseases arise and suggest new strategies for therapy (NIH, 2010).” Stem cells are also very useful in testing the effects of new drugs without having to first test them on a human or animal. Already pluripotent stem cells are already being used to screen potential anti-tumor drugs for treating cancer (NIH, 2010).
One of the most promising areas of stem cell research today is in its use to treat cardiovascular disease, which is the number one cause of death for Americans today. Both embryonic and adult-derived stem cells can be used to repair damaged heart tissue caused by cardiovascular disease. “A few small studies have been carried out in humans, usually in patients who are undergoing open-heart surgery. Several of these have demonstrated that stem cells that are injected into the circulation or directly into the injured heart tissue appear to improve cardiac function and/or induce the formation of new capillaries (NIH, 2010).” Thus, embryonic stem cell research may hold the cure to a disease that affects more Americans than any other. However, more research is needed in order to efficiently use stem cell therapy to treat those suffering from heart disease.
The life saving potential of stem cell research, especially with totipotent and pluripotent stem cells, is limitless. With more research put into understanding how these cells differentiate, there is the possibility of using stem cells to replace cells and tissues that have been destroyed or damaged do to injuries and diseases including Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injuries, stroke, burns, heart disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. The barriers stem cell researcher being able to help eliminate some of humanities stem mostly from misunderstandings and misconceptions regarding how stem cells are harvested and where they come from. By educating the public on the realities of stem cell research and the possibilities it holds for the advancement of medicine and science, perhaps the controversy can be dispelled and barriers removed so that stem cell research can continue to find positive solutions for some of humanities most dreaded diseases.
McCloskey, Patrick (2010) “Is Stem-Cell Research Moral?” American Catholic Web. Retrieved 23 October 2010 from http://www.americancatholic.org/news/stemcell/ask_stemcell.asp
Medical News Today (2010) “Combining Stem-Cell and Gene-Therapy Techniques to Tackle a Deadl Blood Disease Web. Retrieved 23 October 2010 from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/205612.php
National Institute of Health (NIH), Stem Cell Information (2009) “Stem Cell Basics” Web. Retrieved 23 October 2010 from http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/defaultpage.asp
Solo, Pam, Pressberg, Gail (2007) The Politics and Promise of Stem Cell Research, West Port, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers
University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center (2010) “What are Some Different Types of Stem Cells?” Web. Retrieved 23 October, 2010 from http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/tech/stemcells/sctypes/
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