Stem cell research holds enormous potential for treating a broad spectrum of diseases but before that potential can even begin to be harnessed, there must be a clear pathway to obtaining the research needed to make stem cell therapies a reality. Since the advent of stem cell research, one barrier to furthering stem cell research has been religion.
The destruction of an embryo that occurs when embryonic stem cells are extracted has angered and upset many religious groups, who see it as ‘murder’ or the destruction of human life. They do, however, tend to support the use of adult stem cells. With adult stem cells, extraction is from adult tissues and does not result in the destruction of an embryo. In this way, religious groups are pushing for a greater focus and research on adult stem cells. However, their efforts are not without opposition from scientists and researchers themselves, mostly due to the different properties of embryonic and adult stem cells. The two stem cell types have numerous benefits and challenges.
The Use Of Embryonic Stem Cells In Science
Embryonic stem cells have some special properties that really set them apart from adult stem cells. It is these specific properties that have resulted in a greater support from the scientific community. At the same time, the very nature of embryonic stem cells in terms of how they are isolated for research has caused controversy for religious groups, thus pitting embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells against one another.
Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent cells, which means that they have a unique ability to differentiate into any of hundreds of cell types in our bodies. Not only that, but embryonic stem cells can more easily be grown in the laboratory in comparison with adult stem cells. In a sense, they are younger and fresher cells that can more readily be coaxed to grow as needed for research and therapeutic value.
Religious Arguments Against Embryonic Stem Cell Use
It is generally cited in the scientific community that there is no substitute for embryonic stem cells and that adult stem cells simply don’t hold the same potential as embryonic stem cells. These scientists also explain that the embryos were discarded ones that would serve a better purpose by being put to use to improve the health and lives of people suffering from devastating diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Religious groups such as Catholics strongly disagree and support the view that life begins at conception. By this notion, any research on embryos is synonymous with murder. Some of the more liberal religious groups take a somewhat relaxed approach to stem cell research and do support the use of embryonic stem cells. Others may support the use of embryonic stem cells but only when used under very tight, rigid parameters.
The Case For Adult Stem Cells
Despite the fact that there are arguments for the benefits of embryonic stem cells as well as arguments against the use, virtually everyone can probably agree that in an ideal world, adult stem cells would be equivalent to embryonic stem cells. In this way, researchers and scientists could obtain more funding and forge ahead to use adult stem cells as they attempt to find treatments and cures to some of the most debilitating diseases. Researchers could avoid the controversy and funding issues that occur due to religion and political factors.
The reality is still controversial as well because religious groups argue that adult stem cells are just as capable as embryonic stem cells. Recent years have shown increased funding from religious groups to adult stem cell research, with the hopes that greater interest in the use of adult stem cells will prompt reduced use of embryonic stem cells. While there has been a great deal of promising research into adult stem cells, including recent studies that suggested adult stem cells can be reprogrammed into embryonic-like cells, current knowledge still dictates that embryonic stem cells hold far more therapeutic potential.
The debate over the use of embryonic stem cells does not appear to be fading anytime soon. As religious groups continue to push for the use of adult stem cells instead of embryonic ones, it may very well be that we find new potential and uses for adult stem cells. Until that time, however, embryonic stem cells continue to be the most promising stem cells but the surrounding ethical controversy may ultimately prevent the full harnessing of embryonic stem cell power.