Mention the word ‘foetus’ and heated controversy is likely to soon follow. This is particularly the case in the field of embryonic stem cell research.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from the foetus-research into the therapeutic properties of these stem cells and have triggered massive debate amongst politicians, religious groups, the general public and lastly, a minority of scientists.
Good and Bad of the Stem Cell Debate
Opponents of embryonic stem cell research compare the destruction of an embryo to an abortion. They believe that the embryo constitutes life because it has the potential to fully develop into a human being. Those against embryonic stem cell use believe that is it immoral and unethical to destroy one life to save another.
By using stem cells and discarding the embryo, it is thought that human life is ultimately de-valued by this act and is paving a slippery slope for further scientific procedures that similarly de-value life. In particular, many religious groups who are adamantly pro-life have condemned embryonic stem cell research and all of its applications. Other arguments against embryonic stem cells cite the fact that adult stem cells are the ones currently being used in therapies and thus, there is no need to even venture into embryonic stem cell territory.
Those who support embryonic stem cell research believe that an embryo is not equivalent to human life because it is inside the womb. Supporters also contend that the societal costs of many diseases and conditions, both in monetary and suffering aspects, means that the ethical concerns regarding embryonic stem cell usage are not sufficient to warrant discontinuation of this promising therapy.
Another argument for embryonic stem cell research is that the embryos are leftover from in-vitro fertilisation and would otherwise be destroyed, so they should instead be put to greater use. Even further down the line in development is the belief that those embryos from legal abortions, which have already been destroyed, would be better used to advance human health rather than simply discarded.
Any Solutions to this Conundrum?
Fortunately, there are alternatives but they are far from perfect and they do still require further research before they can be used with an acceptable level of success. Two new embryonic stem cell treatments avoid the foetal destruction by either:
- Deriving embryonic stem cells without destructing the foetus
- Obtaining embryonic stem cells without actually creating a foetus
In altered nuclear transfer (ANT), an embryo is not created. A derivative of somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), the nucleus of the somatic cell (any body cell other than an egg) is altered, or genetically reprogrammed, prior to being transferred into the egg. The alteration consequence is that the somatic cell DNA still produces stem cells but does not generate an embryo.
In blastomere extraction, an embryo is created but not destroyed. This procedure is performed on a two-day old embryo, following the division of the fertilised egg into eight blastomeres or cells. Previously, the techniques used for harvesting involving the derivation of embryonic stem cells at a later developmental stage, when the embryo is made up of approximately 150 cells. When these cells were harvested, the embryo was destroyed. Embryonic stem cells can instead be extracted from blastomeres, therefore preventing embryo destruction and allowing use of stem cells for research and therapeutic treatment of disease.
The other alternative is to strictly use adult stem cells because these are derived from adult tissues. The therapeutic potential is lower, however, because adult stem cells can’t differentiate into as many different types of cells as can embryonic stem cells. They are also more likely to have developed genetic abnormalities over time and they don’t tend to replicate as efficiently.
It is unlikely that a comprehensive solution will be found for the embryonic stem cell debate anytime soon. In the meantime, both national and international policies along with collective public views will likely guide the research and therapy efforts for Embryonic Stem Cells. There is no doubt that stem cells have great potential for treating disease but there unfortunately still remain doubts as to the ethical and moral ramifications of pursuing this potential.