Pros and Cons of Stem Cell Research – Ethical Issues

What Is Stem Cell Research?

What stem cell research offers are wide possibilities of modern treatment development for more efficient stem cell treatments.

Stem cells are unique because they can differentiate into specialized cell types. However, the ethical arguments for and against using them must be examined.

It may be possible to treat patients by transplanting specialized cells that have been grown from stem cells in the laboratory. It might also be possible to generate new nerve cells for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and paralysis.

Stem cell research focuses on developing new treatments for various medical conditions using stem cell technologies. Human stem cells are capable of regeneration and those that are derived from the early stages of embryonic development can be extracted and induced to form another type of cell. This gives the human stem cells a remarkable potential to help in the regeneration of damaged tissues.

What is a Stem Cell?

Stem cells are special cells with a unique growth characteristic. They can make identical copies of themselves, as well as grow into more specialized cell types. Embryonic stem cells are the only stem cells that can be grown in large numbers in the laboratory and retain the ability to grow into any type of cells including nerve, heart muscle, bone, and insulin-producing cells.

The Evolution of Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research is a very useful scientific study of human development. It can specifically identify the role that genes play in the development of genetic traits in humans. Diseases like cancer affect cell mutations, making stem cell research more valuable in understanding the evolution of diseases and what role genetics and cellular development assume in their growth. It is also used in testing the effectiveness of drugs in healthy human tissue through drug testing on a human stem cell sample. This reduces the health risk involved in using human volunteers for the test.

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Because of the potency of stem cells, medical researchers are pursuing further stem cell research that can help develop new treatments for different kinds of ailments such as diabetes, cardiac disease, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s Disease, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Although it is currently in its infancy stage where numerous clinical studies are required to further establish certainty in its effectiveness in the treatment of some diseases, medical scientists are optimistic with the positive development of stem cell treatments.

Stem Cell Research Treatments

Stem cell research primarily focuses on the ability of stem cells to regenerate. Due to a stem cell’s potent characteristics, it can be induced to differentiate and grow a particular type of tissue. Burn patients benefit from engineered new skin tissue used for a skin graft. Degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease can potentially benefit from the stem cell research that aims to replace degenerated brain tissues by replenishment of new ones. Research on embryonic stem cells focuses on the promising treatment of degenerative brain diseases.

Stem cell treatment for heart disease is focused on replacing damaged heart tissues with new ones. It aims to develop new pancreatic cells that can replace the damaged cells that produce insulin in Type I Diabetes. A pancreatic organ transplant may involve rejection, thus stem cell transplantation can help reduce this risk. The use of adult stem cells taken from the blood and bone marrow has been very useful in the treatment of blood deficiency diseases such as sickle cell anemia and leukemia. However, there is a high risk for rejection in organ transplants and scientists undertake further stem cell research that can effectively reduce this risk.

Stem Cell Research Issues

Stem cell research development gives rise to the worldwide debate regarding its legality. Some scientists admit it can open a promising possibility of human cloning, which gives rise to moral issues. Some debates involve federal funding for continuous stem cell research and technologies.

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The production of embryonic stem cells is deemed illegal in France, Germany, Austria, and Ireland but it is legal in the United States, Finland, Netherlands, UK, Sweden, and Greece. Although stem cell research is hampered by a lack of funding and objections, one cannot deny the promising future it offers in the development of modern treatments for serious health problems.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used for diagnosis or to guide treatment without the opinion of a health professional. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a doctor for advice.

Human Stem Cells and Stem Cell Treatment

Embryos contain cells called embryonic stem cells. They can multiply and turn into any kind of cell found in the human body. If the DNA from a human being was placed in an egg which was then grown to the stage of being an embryo, the embryonic stem cells from this embryo could be used to produce tissues for transplant into the person without any of the usual rejection problems from other donors.

Because this involves the destruction of an embryo, this causes many people to question the morality and ethics of such procedures.

Scientists once said that embryonic stem cells were more effective than adult stem cells for the following reasons.

  • Embryonic stem cells are easier to identify, isolate, and harvest.
  • There are more embryonic stem cells than adult stem cells.
  • They have grown more quickly and easily in the laboratory than adult stem cells.
  • They are more plastic, and therefore, can be more easily manipulated.

The current ethical arguments against using embryonic stem cells are generally as follows.

  • It is unethical because it destroys a human embryo.
  • Embryonic stem cells can cause cancer when and if they become malignant.
  • It is unnecessary to use them because adult stem cells provide a viable alternative.
  • The benefits of embryonic stem cells are a long way off.
  • Use of adult stem cells seems to overcome the problem of immune rejection, which would be a large problem with embryonic stem cells.
  • Embryonic stem cell research is driven by a lust for profit.
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Stem Cells Collected Directly from the Blood

Bone marrow is the factory for the blood. It produces white blood cells to protect against infection, red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body, and platelets to prevent bleeding. Patients are given high doses of chemotherapy generally have very few remaining healthy bone marrow stem cells. These patients required transfusions of donated bone marrow containing stem cells, to help them recover from chemotherapy.

Now it is possible to take bone marrow stem cells from the patient before chemotherapy, clone the stem cells, and return them to the patient after treatment. This overcomes problems of transplant rejection. Stem cells can be collected directly from the blood.

Issues of Adult Stem Cell Transplantation

Adult stem cells may be found in the brain, pancreas, liver, bone marrow, blood, muscle, skin, and some other parts of the body. Adult stem cells can become any one of the kinds of specialized cells formed in the tissue in which they were collected. This is different in the case of embryonic stem cells, which can become any kind of cell from any part of the body.

Reprogramming Adult Stem Cells for Transplant

Some research now says that, in the future, adult stem cells could be reprogrammed to become almost any other type of cell. If successful, this research could remove the moral and ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cells. Readers can further their research on the technicalities at the Bedford Stem Cell Research Foundation.

Sources:

  • Stem Cell Research – Issues in Society Vol 178 (Justin Healey, ed.) Spinney Press, Rozelle, 2003.
  • Stemcells.nih.gov, “Stem Cell Basics”
  • MedicalNewsToday, “What are Stem Cells?”
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