Should stem cells continue to be researched?

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By: Alyssa Larsen

Copy edited by: Matthew Quach and Maggie McPherson

Research edited by: Jared Bernhardt

Format edited by: Arthur Carlton-Jones

The original discovery of the many applications of stem cells in 1998 was a huge innovation in medicine.[1] These cells are in the most primitive form and have no set function. Therefore, they are able to easily adapt to a new environment of specialized cells (such as muscle, blood, or brain cells). This finding provided a way to possibly regenerate, heal, or replace any cells damaged by a multitude of illnesses. Stem cell research affects an extremely widespread population of patients due to its possible ability to treat such a wide range of diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and many other degenerative conditions.

Why do people support this research?

Most members of the scientific community favor researching stem cells due to their immense potential to revolutionize the ways we can treat illnesses. For example, stem cells can be used to regenerate damaged cells caused by radiation treatment for cancer. They also have been used in transplant medicine to completely construct a new, simple organ that is readily able to replace the damaged one.[2] ESCs and iPSCs are favored because they are so primal and therefore can adapt much more effectively than regular adult stem cells. This is not to say, however, that stem cell scientists support destroying embryos. The general opinion of the science community is that these embryos used for research deserve a special respect for their contribution to medicine.[3] In fact, some supporters even say that embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization or legal abortions should be allowed to be obtained for research purposes instead of being discarded.[4]

Other supporters may have a strong personal connection to this research if they themselves or their loved ones suffer from a disease that can possibly be treated through stem cell therapy. From a medical perspective, stem cell research truly seems to be beneficial for the majority of the population. Although this treatment may seem like a perfect solution on paper, many ethical issues arise from it. One type of stem cell is derived from the blastocyst form of embryos (comprised of about 8-10 cells) that people donate for research.[5] Although these cells are effective in their medical use, there is a question of whether or not destroying these early-stage embryos is considered murder.

In attempt to resolve this problem, induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) were created in 2006.[6] iPSCs are virtually identical to the embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in terms of structure and function. However, they are derived from adult cells and are then genetically manipulated. Now there are no ethical issues with this research, right? Wrong. Those against stem cell research continued their arguments by claiming things like iPSCs too closely resembled ESCs.

Why not?

Some people are extremely concerned with the apparent ethical wrongdoings involved with this research since the use of ESCs involves the destruction of the embryo. Although the embryos used are only miniscule bundles of cells, some feel that this still constitutes the destruction of a human life.

In politics, “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice” is a huge discord, and these viewpoints are associated with the opinions on stem cell research. Critics fall largely under the “pro-life” category for ethical and/or religious reasons and see ESC research as a violation of their beliefs. Although iPSCs were created to resolve this issue, people still oppose their use due to their resemblance to human embryos, and also because of the possibility of human cloning.

The bottom line:

So many diseases are in this uncured standstill, and we seem to just accept that they will remain that way until some scientist comes up with the answer. Stem cells could very well be that answer we are looking for, but how will we ever know if the research doesn’t continue to be funded? Unfortunately, the many societal questions and doubts of such research limit the ability of these stem cells to be utilized to their full extent.

This topic is extremely controversial, but a balance between both the medical benefits and societal concerns would allow stem cell research to be more effective and beneficial in all aspects. iPSCs were specifically developed in order to diminish the main ethical opposition against using embryos, so they at least should be able to be used without further constraint.

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