‘Do the potential benefits of stem cell research outweigh the risks and negative ethical implications associated with it?’
Stem cell research is currently one of the biggest fields in modern day science. It has numerous benefits currently, and it is only the beginning. The possibilities are endless, but there are many ethical implications associated with it, as well as many risks. Do the potential benefits outweigh these risks and negative ethical implications?
2. OVERVIEW OF STEM CELLS
2.1 DEFINITION OF STEM CELLS
Stem cells are unspecialised cells which are able to become any type of cell in the body. They have the ability to divide and renew themselves for very long periods before they are specialised. The process in which they are changed into a specific type of cell is called differentiation. They can become cells of the heart, bones, muscles, brain, blood, skin, or any other type of cell. There are different types and sources of stem cells, but they all have the ability to develop into different types of cells.
2.2 TYPES OF STEM CELLS
2.2.1 EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS
Embryonic stem cells are cells found in embryos during the blastocyst stage. They are obtained from the eggs of an infertile couple, that are fertilised in vitro, rather than in the woman’s body.
2.2.2 ADULT STEM CELLS
Adult stem cells, also known as somatic stem cells, are found in certain tissue of fully developed humans. They can produce only certain types of cells. In the body they maintain and repair tissue. They can be found in bone marrow. They can also be found in the brain, skin, liver, skeletal muscle and in blood vessels, but in small amounts.
2.2.3 AMNIOTIC STEM CELLS
Amniotic stem cells are found within the amniotic fluid. They are extremely active and can multiply without a food source. They have a limited number of cells into which they can form, but, unlike embryonic stem cells, they are unable to cause tumours.
2.2.4 INDUCED PLURIPOTENT STEMS CELLS
These stem cells are formed by genetically programming adult skin cells to become stem cells. (i)
2.3 HARVESTING OF STEM CELLS
There are different procedures followed to collect and harvest the different types of stem cells from their different sources.
Embryonic stems cells are found in embryos. Specifically, they are obtained from eggs cells from an infertile couple, that have been fertilised in vitro, rather than within the woman’s body. The embryo is in the stage of blastocyst when they are able to produce embryonic stem cells. Usually about 30 stem cells can be taken from the blastocyst.
These cells are then grown in laboratories by a process known as cell culture. The inner cell mass of the cells are removed and placed into a laboratory culture dish that contains a broth or nutrient medium, off which the stem cells will survive. The dish is often coated in mouse embryonic skin cells, known as a feeder layer, which allows the human stem cells to have a sticky surface to which they can attach. They also release nutrients into the medium within the culture dish. The dish is stored at a suitable temperature and humidity level which allows the cells to divide. The cells divide and fill the dish over several days. They are then removed and placed into several new culture dishes. This is repeated numerous times over several months and is known as subculturing. After several months, millions of stem cells can be formed from the first 30. They are then frozen in batches and sent to other laboratories for further experimentation.
Another type of stem cell harvest procedure is the removal of peripheral blood stem cells. Typically, the donor is given large doses of chemotherapy, which causes a lot of white blood cells to die. The bone marrow is then forced to try and replace it. There is not enough space in your bones for all the extra blood, so the bone marrow forces large amounts of stem cells into the blood where they are able to mature. The donor, if they do not require chemotherapy, could be given a white blood cell growth factor known as G-CSF, which has the same effect. If the donor is the same person as the patient, they will use both methods to increase the harvest.
When the stem cells are being harvested, the donor has an IV in both arms. The one extracts blood which contains the stem cells. The stem cells are extracted from the blood, and the blood is returned to the donor through the other IV. This can be used in the treatment of leukaemia. In a study involving around 38000 people, people who received treatment showed an increase survival rate from 48 to 63 percent one year after treatment. (ii)
2.4 HOW STEM CELLS WORK
Stem cells have the ability to become any type of cell in the body. They can be used in treating several types of diseases. Stem cells work by being a source of new cells to replace defective, damaged or diseased cells.
Stem cells are unspecialised cells, which form into specialised cells during a process called differentiation. Internal as well as external signals can cause stem cell differentiation. Internal signals come from within the nucleus, while external signals are caused by things such as contact with chemicals or other cells, as well as the presence of certain things in the environment.
Stem cells in culture dishes are stimulated to differentiate into differentiated cells by changing the culture broth or medium, as well as the coating of the dish. Genes are also inserted.
The differentiated cells can then be used as they are needed, or used for experimental purposes.
2.5 BENEFITS OF STEM CELLS
2.5.1 USE OF STEM CELLS AT PRESENT
- TRANSPLANTING BONE MARROW TO TREAT LEUKAEMIA
- HEALING BURNS WITH SKIN GRAFTS
- REPLACING DAMAGED CELLS AND TREATING DISEASES
- TO STUDY THE DEVELOPMENT OF ORGANISMS AND DISEASES
- TESTING NEW MEDICAL TREATMENTS
- MAKING INSULIN FOR DIABETICS TO INJECT
2.5.2 USE OF STEM CELLS IN THE FUTURE
TO TREAT THINGS SUCH AS:
- LIVER FAILURE
- HEART DAMAGE
- BRAIN DAMAGE
- MISSING TEETH
2.6 ETHICAL ISSUES SURROUNDING THE USE OF STEM CELLS
There are several ethical issues surrounding the use of stem cells and their research. The biggest issue is the use of an embryo. Although the embryo is fertilised in vitro and come from willing couples, there are still issues regarding the debate of whether the embryo is human or not, and whether it has rights. Some people believe that human life begins at conception, or even before this, so the embryos are human and deserve rights and protection; while others believe that life begins when you are born, when your heart first beats, or a few months after development. Some groups see the use of embryos as a form of abortion. The debate depends on one’s own personal view as to whether the embryo is human or not.
Another ethical issue many people have regards the use and creation of Human-Animal Chimeras. Chimeras are organisms that contain cells or tissues from multiple organisms. Some believe that it is ethically wrong to combine human and animal stem cells to form chimeras. They are separate organisms which should not be combined. Despite these issues, chimeras are important in forming actual therapeutic methods. Law prohibits the breeding of human-animal chimeras.
The debate between preventing and reducing human suffering versus respecting the value of human life is another issue. Stem cells have the ability to cure numerous issues, and have the potential to prevent and treat several other things; but if embryonic stem cells are used, it can be seen as destroying one human life to save another.
There are also several risks involved in stem cell research and use. It is relatively new, so the long term side effects of its use in humans is so far unknown, but they could be horrific. In tests done with rats, 20% that were injected with embryonic stem cells died of some form of tumour. (chem445stemcell, 2011)
3. MY PERSONAL VIEW
Stem cell research is one of the most important fields of science in modern times. It is able to, and has the potential to cure numerous diseases, illnesses and problems found in humans. Despite this many people see it as unethical and full of risks. I believe that the potential benefits outweigh the risks and negative ethical implications associated with it.
Stem cells are unspecialised cells which are able to become any type of cell in the body. They have many current uses, and they have the potential for numerous future uses. Scientists and doctors are able to do stem cell transplants from bone marrow to treat leukaemia. Thousands of patients over the globe have successfully received this treatment which has prolonged their lives. Stem cells are also able to heal burns through skin grafts, as well as replace damaged cells and treat diseases. Stem cells allow scientists to study the growth and development patterns of both organisms and diseases, as well as provide new ways of treating the diseases. Another important feature of stem cells is their use in the production of insulin for diabetics. The insulin produced is indistinguishable from human insulin.
It is not only the current uses of stem cells that are important, but also the potential that they have. Scientists are experimenting and finding ways to use stem cells to cure diseases that were once seen as incurable, such as diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. They believe that they can find ways to cure liver failure, heart damage, cancer, brain damage, deafness, blindness, hair loss, missing teeth, and even infertility. Scientist believe that they will be able to use a patient’s own stem cells to grow new organs for transplant, which would be guaranteed to not be rejected. The possibilities are endless.
Despite their potential, stem cells raise many ethical issues, and have many risks that surround them. The use of an embryo is questioned by many people. It is believed by many that human life begins at conception, or even before this. They believe that the use of an embryo is a form of abortion, or an exploitation of their human rights. Others believe that life only begins later in pregnancy, or at birth, so they disagree with this viewpoint. The embryos are donated willingly by couples, and are fertilised in vitro.
Another issue that people have is that human tissue is combined with animal tissue to form chimeras. They are separate organisms and should not be combined to create new creatures. Additional, there is an ethical issue raised on the debate between preventing and reducing human suffering versus respecting the value of human life. Stem cells have the ability to cure numerous issues, and have the potential to prevent and treat several other things; but if embryonic stem cells are used, it can be seen as destroying one human life to save another. Some of the risks involved in stem cell research and use include that it is relatively new, so the long term side effects of its use in humans is so far unknown, but they could be horrific. In tests done with rats, 20% that were injected with embryonic stem cells died of some form of tumour.
There are numerous ethical issues raised through stem cell research, but the potential that it has in curing and preventing diseases and issues in humans greatly outweighs them. Scientists must continue researching stem cells, and finding exciting ways in which they can be used.
4. EVALUATION AS TO WHAT INFLUENCED MY DECISION
I visited numerous sources with different viewpoints to allow myself to make an informed decision as to where I stand regarding stem cell research.
Regarding the use of embryonic stem cells, I believe that human life begins at conception, but the fact that the couples who donate the embryos are sterile and already have children, and that the embryos are fertilised in vitro, influenced me to believe that the use of embryonic stem cells is acceptable. In 2005, guidelines regarding the use of embryonic stem cells were laid. They urge scientists to work ethically, responsibly and sensitive in their work. They are not laws, yet they still lay the basis on which most laboratories work.
There is more than one source of stem cells, so not all stem cell related topics are surrounded by numerous ethical issues. The numerous benefits and the potential that stem cells have also influenced my decision into supporting the study and research of stem cells.
Stem cell research has the potential to save thousands of lives, and through research scientists will be able to discover and test the ways in which they can be used.
Although there are many ethical issues surrounding the use of them cells, the potential benefits of their research greatly outweighs these issues. They have the potential to save the lives of those who thought they were unsaveable, as well as treat the untreatable. Through the right research and funding, the possibilities regarding stem cell research are endless.
6. BIBLIOGRAPHY AND REFERENCES
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