The human body is a vastly complex organic structure that is the culmination of evolution over billions of years in the Earth’s history. Scientists have always pondered how, from a ball of cells at conception, humans grow to be organisms with highly differentiated and complex biological systems. This can be attributed to the progenitors of all the cells that make up our bodies, namely- the elusive ‘stem-cells’. The prospects and medical opportunities that stem cells open up to scientists are aplenty. Thus, researchers have tirelessly worked towards a deeper understanding of these cells with the hopes of utilizing them for curing disease. Despite how promising stem cell research might sound on paper, people have questioned the ethics surrounding this field. This was largely due to the use of embryonic stem cells and the ethics that commensurate with the procurement of embryos for stem cell research. These arguments that crux from ethical reasons, opposing stem cell research, are largely unfound and are thus detrimental to the advancement of modern medicine. As exemplified by the use of bone marrow transplants in leukemia patients, stem cells help save the lives of many even today. Surely for a field as promising as stem cell research, sustainability is of no question. Stem cells provide doctors and medical researchers with better opportunities at developing personalized forms of medicine and they open new avenues for research that can save countless lives. Due to these reasons and more, it is in my opinion that stem cell research is an ethical and highly sustainable scientific endeavor.
The future of stem cell research is highly promising and has many positive implications on humanity. Even though stem cell research is relatively new, the path leading to this development in medical science spanned a few centuries. During the 17th century, Robert Hooke first discovered cells -the building blocks of life (House, 2009). Two centuries later, scientists understood that some cells were capable of producing other cells. Later in 1978, leading to the advent of stem cell research, scientists identified a rather unique type of cell – embryonic stem cells, in embryonic cord blood (Murnaghan, 2014a). This unprecedented discovery gathered scientific interest and eventually culminated in increased numbers of scientists focusing on this new found, cutting-edge field of science. Stem cell research is now considered by many to be the future of modern medicine. Even though we may have seen stem cells being used in only a few applications today, the best is certainly yet to come.
In order to understand the impact stem cell research can have on medicine, a clear understanding of their functionality is necessary. Stem cells are defined as those cells that are undifferentiated and have the ability to produce other stem cells (Murnaghan, 2014b). Two broad categories of stem cells exist in nature. Pluripotent stem cells are capable of specializing themselves into any type of cell in the body and are usually found in embryos. Adult stem cells are part of various tissues and are instrumental in bodily growth and repair. The focus of stem cell research and thus, this essay, is largely on pluripotent stem cells. These cells are capable of replicating themselves to produce a large population of undifferentiated stem cells. Given the necessary conditions, they are also capable of specializing themselves into the different cell types that are found in a human body. Owing to these reasons, pluripotent stem cells garner tremendous scientific interest. Additionally, it is important to note that the use of embryonic stem cells in research owes to their pluripotent nature. Thanks to these unique characteristics of pluripotent stem cells and the possible implications of their use in medicine, stem cell research is featured in the limelight of modern science today.
Researchers have also discovered an alternative to embryonic stem cells through the recent advent of induced pluripotent stem cells. This variety of stem cell is derived by reprogramming adult human cells into pluripotent stem cells that share the characteristics of embryonic stem cells (Yu, et al., 2007). For all purposes, induced pluripotent stem cells behave identically to embryonic stem cells. However, it is also distinct from embryonic stem cells in the sense that induced pluripotent stem cells are created with the same genetic code of the adult from whom the adult cells are taken from. Embryonic stem cells will have the genetic makeup of the gametes that aided in its fertilization, which is essentially that of an unborn human. It is hoped that the widespread use of this newer, ethically justifiable form of stem cell will help win over the masses. By the looks of it, it certainly has the potential to do so. Embryos do not need to be destroyed for research involving induced pluripotent stem cells. This would certainly help dissipate opponents of embryonic stem cell research and further increase the overall public acceptance rate for this experimental field. However, it can simply be said that embryonic stem cells are here to stay. Even though researchers have recently started to develop alternative methods that alleviate the use of embryonic stem cells, scientists are most familiar with and have understood embryonic stem cells better than induced pluripotent stem cells. It would be a shame if existing research on embryonic stem cells is abandoned in favor of induced pluripotent stem cells. This fact is well understood by the scientists working in this field, and research continues to be done on both these varieties of stem cell. Proponents are hopeful that the widespread use of induced pluripotent stem cells will help quell those who are against the use of embryos for stem cell research.
Stem cell research can contribute greatly to the field of medicine. Owing to their pluripotent nature, stem cells have the potential to treat a multitude of medical disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease (McKay, 2000). Some researchers claim that stem cell therapy can aid in the arduous battle against cancer (Reya, Morrison, Clarke, & Weissman, 2001). Novel but viable ideas involving induced pluripotent stem cells have sprung up within the last few years. Scientists have come up with the idea of replacing damaged organs using artificially cultivated organs in medical labs (Sifferlin, 2013). The means by which they aim to achieve this purpose is, of course, through (induced pluripotent) stem cells. By culturing a large population of stem cells and by inducing them to differentiate into a particular cell type, scientists have been able to grow functional human organs in a laboratory setting. While it is true that this process is not perfected yet, the progress researchers have made in this regard is nothing short of amazing. Scientists refer to this application as a ‘personalized form of medicine’. This is because the induced pluripotent stem cells that are used in cultivating these organs originate from the adult cells of the individual who requires an organ transplant. The implications of this application are remarkable; this would allow organ transplants to be done with minimal risk of tissue rejection and it would also alleviate waiting lists for organ donation. Innovative applications similar to the one discussed above, are possible in the realm of stem cell research. Through such applications of stem cells, modern medical science receives a tremendous boon.
However, certain ethical questions have also been raised with regard to the potential applications of stem cells. People have questioned the limits of such research. Where will it all end? Will it be possible to produce human clones using stem cells? In answering such questions, it is important to note that most scientists and researchers strictly adhere to the principles and ethics of the scientific method. They are well aware of the constraints on their research and stay within international law. Furthermore, international law actually prohibits the cloning of human beings, rendering most arguments that crux from this issue, moot (United Nations, 2005). Researchers will continue to innovate and find new applications involving stem cells. The possibilities are essentially limitless but as long as they stay within their ethical boundaries, such research will greatly benefit us all. Broad (n.d.) conclusively puts this thought into words by saying that “without a doubt, stem cell research will lead to the dramatic improvement in the human condition and will benefit millions of people.”
Initially, the general public grew skeptic and raised ethical concerns over the use of embryos in stem cell research. With time, access to information became easier and most people had the opportunity of learning about embryonic stem cell research. A survey carried out by Ipsos MORI showed that 90% of the UK citizens were now aware of stem cell research (Castell, et al., 2014). In addition, a survey conducted by the European commission in 2010 showed that 67% of the citizens of the EU supported embryonic stem cell research, as opposed to 41% in 2005 (O’Malley, 2014). Within the five years spanning 2005 and 2010, countless advancements were made with regards to embryonic stem cell research; the general public had more exposure to this growing field and awareness of stem cell research spread through the media. This clearly highlights the fact that through better awareness of the ethics of the scientific method, people will be more supportive and accepting of embryonic stem cell research. From the discovery of the cell by Robert Hooke to the discovery of stem cells, science has rapidly advanced over the last few centuries. Stem cell research is the future of modern medicine and better awareness on part of the general public is necessary in order to advance humanity into this gleaming future.
The ethical debate surrounding stem cell research is over the morality of destroying a human embryo in order to derive embryonic stem cells for research purposes. For some, the thought of destroying a human embryo can be rather unsettling, even if it is only a few days old. They believe that human life begins at conception and consequentially, the destruction of an embryo is considered to be the destruction of a human life. Additionally, they argue that human embryos are afforded the same rights as living human beings; thus, from their viewpoint, embryos are entitled to the same protections that humans receive. However, the embryos from which embryonic stem cells are derived from are merely a cluster of cells, with little to no organ development. Therefore, these embryos do not constitute a living human being. I firmly believe that human life begins once the fetal heart begins to function; therefore, the ethical disputes surrounding the use of embryos for research seems to me, rather unsound.
Moreover, it is crucial to understand that the embryos used in embryonic stem cell research are those that are created in excess by fertility clinics. Utilizing these embryos that were otherwise meant to be disposed, researchers are in fact paying due respect to the life of that embryo by using them to help treat millions of people. Furthermore, researchers do not utilize as many embryos as most people presume they use. Cells obtained from a single embryo can be made to grow in a laboratory to create a ‘cell line’- a proliferating cell culture with the ability of producing an almost infinite number of embryonic stem cells (Cattaneo, 2012). Therefore, this alleviates the need of destroying an embryo every time research is needed to be done.The potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research far outweigh any moral concerns associated with it, and for this reason, embryonic stem cell research should be encouraged and pursued.
Medical breakthroughs like that of stem cells, are hard to come by. Stem cell research progressively takes humanity to another level of scientific advancement. Even though scientists have already identified many medical applications for stem cell research, we are by no means limited to these treatments. I believe that stem cells have the potential of being used to create human blood cells in large quantities. This would allow an extensive blood bank to be created worldwide, thereby alleviating any shortages of blood for transfusions. Such an application will surely save the lives of many. Stem cell research is a highly sustainable scientific endeavor that promises to save lives and cure ailments with minimum impact to our lives and general well-being. Furthermore, embryonic stem cell research is not ethically immoral as many people think it to be. Scientists give more respect to those embryos that are used in stem cell research by using them to improve humanity’s condition than through their disposal by the fertility clinics that initially grew them. Additionally, with the dawn of the information era, where information about almost anything is made available at the tips of your fingertips, many people are changing their minds about embryonic stem cell research. Acceptance rates of embryonic stem cell research have grown steadily over the last decade as people grew more aware of the implications of such research. Scientific research is done methodically and with the utmost reverence to human life; scientists wouldn’t be inclined to break their ethical code during research. Therefore, those who argue on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research are mostly misinformed with this aspect. Capps (n.d.) puts this thought into words elegantly by saying that “the refusal to acknowledge the scientific value of embryonic stem cell research is one more tragic misstep.” Science has advanced humanity this far, and as exemplified by the promising field of stem cell research, it will continue to do so for ages to come.