The Ethics Of Stem Cell Research

The Ethics of Stem Cell Research
By Jamie Maguire

Human stem cells are cells with the potential to differentiate into almost any of the specialized tissue types found in the human body. There are two primary types of human stem cells: adult stem cells, found in the brain, skeletal muscle, bone marrow, placenta and umbilical cord blood; and embryonic stem cells, found, as the name suggests, in human embryos (de Wert & Mummery, 2003). Currently, embryonic stem cells receive a significant amount of attention among researchers, but adult stem cells offer a promising and much less controversial option (Doerflinger, 1999). Adult stem cells have as much potential as embryonic stem cells while lacking the ethical implications, and, therefore, offer a viable alternative to the study of stem cells from embryos.
Embryonic stem (ES) cells are proclaimed by scientists to be the key to curing many diseases, such as multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, as well as for use in transplantation medicine. But in order to obtain ES cells, human embryos must be destroyed. Embryos used are less than fourteen days old and are at the pre-implantation stage (Ruiz-Canela, 2002). This procedure raises the question of the rights and moral standing of newly developed embryos, and at what point they are considered human beings. Adult stem (AS) cells, unlike ES cells, are able to be harvested without destroying a potential human being. They can be gathered with the consent of the person and with no lasting harm done.
It was previously believed that AS cells could only differentiate into the tissue type from which they were derived. In contrast to this, ES cells are theoretically able to differentiate into any tissue type. Due to this idea, ES cells were thought to have much greater medical potential. Recent years however have shown AS cells could have as much flexibility as ES cells (Prentice, 2005). This discovery means that AS cells have a higher range of possibilities than was previously assumed.
Another argument supporting the study of ES cells in preference to AS cells is that ES cells can be reproduced outside of the actual organism indefinitely, without losing differentiation potential, or the ability to become a specialized tissue type. There is evidence now that shows AS cells from the bone marrow also have this ability (Ruiz-Canela, 2002). More research is needed to conclusively verify this property of AS cells, but its confirmation would immensely decrease the necessity for further study of ES cells.
A third argument for the case of ES cells research is that ES cells are easier to genetically manipulate than AS cells. While this is accurate, ES cells also tend to be more difficult to control. As is fitting to suit their natural purpose, they can differentiate spontaneously into all kinds of tissues. This causes problems for researchers when they differentiate into a tissue other than that they are trying to cultivate. AS cells typically do not differentiate spontaneously, making it easier to control when and what they differentiate into (Ruiz-Canela, 2002). In this aspect, AS cells are easier to work with.
One of the principal hopes for stem cells is for use in repair and regeneration of human tissues by means of transplants. A crucial element of any successful transplant involves the body’s acceptance of the transplanted tissue. Rejection of a transplant is a major problem encountered by patients. The use of ES cell-based transplants does little to reduce this possibility (Outka, 2002). In animal tests, even ES cells that are implanted with the DNA of the animal risk rejection. Transplants that make use of the subject’s own AS cells have a greatly reduced chance of being rejected (Prentice, 2005).
Upon the arrival in the world of medical research, ES cells were received with great enthusiasm and hope. But after approximately twenty-five years, ES cell research has yet to produce any applicable results. To date, no human patient has benefitted from the use of ES cells, which too frequently result in tumors or other problems in experimental animals. In contrast to the lack of pertinent uses of ES cells, AS cells have been used to effectively treat at least sixty-five diseases in human patients (Prentice, 2005).
The arguments against AS cells are rapidly dwindling. Recent findings have shown them to have the same differentiating potential, ability to be cultured outside of the body, and are less likely to differentiate spontaneously than ES cells. Due to the ways in which ES cells and AS cells are obtained, AS cells lack the ethical concerns of ES cells. Transplants using AS cells have a much lower risk of rejection by the patient’s immune system than those with ES cells. The real results of stem cell research are all in the use of AS cells, and no practical medical uses of ES cells have been developed thus far. AS cells have the same medical potential as, and do not raise the moral questions of, research involving ES cells and as such provide an adequate replacement to the study of embryo derived stem cells.

Thesis: 20/20
Organization: 20/20 Comments: Transitions very nice, clear without being obvious.
Evidence: 20/20
Clarity of Writing: 20/20 Comments: Nice!
Style: 18/20 Comments: Could be a little punchier.

de Wert, G., & Mummery, C. (2003). Human embryonic stem cells: research, ethics and policy. Oxford University Press 18(4): 672-682.

Doerflinger, R. M. (1999). The ethics of funding embryonic stem cell research: a Catholic viewpoint. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 9(2): 137-150.

Prentice, D. A. (2005). Live patients & dead mice, the little-known story of the stem cells that actually work. Christianity Today 49(10).

Outka, G. (2002). The ethics of human stem cell research. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 12(2): 175-213.

Ruiz-Canela, M. (2002). Embryonic stem cell research: the relevance of ethics in the progress of science. Med Sci Monit, 8(5): SR21-26.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License