The new millennium and the advanced technology has brought with it extraordinary advances in biological sciences. Today, there is microarray technology to measure simultaneously the expression of millions of genes in single experiments, completion of human genome sequence, improved efficiencies of drug discovery, human cloning and use of stem cells to cure some illnesses. This paper discussed human embryonic stem cell research as one of the current technology in biomedicine.
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The literature review discovered that whereas human embryonic stem cell research has been effectively used to cure some terminal illnesses including diabetes I, ethical issues emanating from the source, optimum condition, number, appropriate stage, purity and the criteria used for harvesting the stem cell are unending. Whereas opponents maintain that this kind of research should not be continued, those advocating for human embryonic stem cell research maintain that it would be senseless to destroy excess embryos which would have been in any way destroyed without making use of them. They therefore maintain that human embryonic stem cell research should give a chance to already developed human beings who have the potential of recovering from their illnesses through the use of embryonic cells. The discussion concluded that, in order to gain substantial public support while reducing the current controversies, the government and other funding agencies ought to be armed with a set of guidelines that would provide a framework for human embryonic stem cell research. This would be one way of assuring the public that the scientific community is attentive to ethical concerns and the cultural differences among human beings.
The new millennium and the advanced technology has brought with it extraordinary advances in biological sciences (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Today, there is microarray technology to measure simultaneously the expression of millions of genes in single experiments, completion of human genome sequence, improved efficiencies of drug discovery, human cloning and use of stem cells to cure some illnesses (Chen et al, 2012).
In the last few years, doctors made use of modern transplantation medicine where organs were grafted from human donors. Although this procedure was successful in replacing the irreversible damaged organs, in most countries, many patients have died while waiting for donors of specific organs (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). In most cases, the demand for organs surpasses the organs already available. Today, body tissues and organs can be replaced through a number of technological advances including tissue engineering, xeno-transplantation, creation of bio-artificial organs made up of artificial materials and live cells, use of non-human organs and tissues to treat organ and tissue failure, cloning of peoples’ cells for their own medical use, therapeutic cloning and human embryonic stem cell research.
Among the outstanding advancements in medicine and biological field is the successful derivation of human embryonic stem cell (Adelson & Weinberg, 2010). Generally, some systems of the human body have the ability of regenerating throughout life. When blood cells die for instance, they are replaced with new ones from the bone marrow. The source of the new cells that repopulate the blood cells, skin cells, liver cells and tissues from various parts of the body may be explained through stem cell research (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). A stem cell in this case is a self renewing cell line that gives rise to all cells and tissues of the body. These cells are capable of allowing permanent repair of failing organs through injecting healthy functional cells developed from them through what is generally referred as regenerative medicine. Among the organs with the self-renewal capability, resident stem cells are in a position to periodically or continuously provide new, differentiated and functional cells that can replace the cells lost during the normal physiological process or through disease or injury.
Whereas stem cells have the capacity of replicating and being used to cure some diseases, most stem cells have only a limited potential of forming only certain differentiated progeny cells (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). For instance, while skin stem cells can only produce skin cells only, hematopoietic stem cells can produce blood cells only. As a matter of fact, restriction of differentiation potential has been observed as the characteristic of most stem cells studied so far.
However, as an exceptional stem cell, human embryonic stem cell research is capable of giving rise to ideally all cells and tissues of the body (Harman, 2007). As a result, human embryonic stem cells are referred to as pluripotent. Although these cells are generated from early embryos, they are not embryos themselves and therefore cannot develop into whole human beings. Considering the importance and yet controversial debates revolving around human embryonic stem cell research, this paper hopes to bring out more light on human embryonic stem cell research. It will in this case clarify what embryonic stem cell research is, how it works, the ethical concerns and issues surrounding the topic and the benefits of the research. The discussion will also try to revisit some of the questions generally asked regarding human embryonic stem cell research: who really benefits from human embryonic stem cell research? Is it an ethical exercise? Should the research be permitted and continued? Should the government fund for this kind of research?
What are Stem Cells
Unlike other types of cells, stem cells are unspecialized cells that are capable of renewing themselves for a long period of time through cell division (Adelson & Weinberg, 2010). Under some given conditions, stem cells can be stimulated and turned to cells with special functions. Generally, scientists work with two types of stem cells; adult and embryonic stem cells from animals and human beings. After the discovery of isolating stem cells from human embryos and growing the cells in the laboratory in 1998, the technology has been upheld by many scientists (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). At the point of discovery, the embryos used had been created for the purpose of infertility through in-vitro fertilization procedures. The excess embryos produced were donated for the purpose of stem cell research. Before the cells were donated, the informed consent of the donor was sought.
Today, scientists have discovered a number of ways through which stem cells can be used for clinical use. The means through which stem cell research is generated involve either systematic transplantation, use of mensenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in tissue engineering protocols, implantation of MSCs at site for localized diseases and a combination of stem cell therapy with gene therapy (Harman, 2007).
In general terms, before stem cells are considered for treatment, stem cell research is conducted to enable the researchers learn the basic information about their behavior. Although stem cell research may have been of great use to the field of reparative medicine, the research has to deal with a number of unending issues including source, optimum condition, number, appropriate stage, purity and the criteria used for harvesting the stem cells (Chen et al, 2012). For instance, embryonic stem cell research obtains stem cells from a developing embryo. In this case, although medical practitioners maintain that human embryonic stem cell research should be given a chance, human life activists and other pro-lifers have strongly opposed the use of embryonic stem cells.
What is Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
Human embryonic stem cells are derived from early human embryos. An embryonic stem cell in this case is a primitive type of a cell that can be used to develop most of the many types of cells found in the human body (Adelson & Weinberg, 2010). These cells may include blood cells, nerve cells, heart cells and brain cells. Once they are fertilized, the cells replicate once every 12-18 hours. Whereas the embryo which is 3-5 days old is referred to as a blastocyst, each cleavage-stage cell is known as blastomere. A fertilized egg is seen as totipoent since it has total potential. It in this case has the ability of giving rise to all different types of the cells in the body. The ability of stem cells extracted from embryos becoming all types of body is enhanced by the fact that these cells are considered pluripotent (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Compared to embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells are naturally limited to differentiating into different types of cells from their tissue of origin which makes them multipotent.
Although stem cells have been considered useful to some extent, the stem cells derived from human embryos have resulted to a wide public debate. Issues often arise in relation to the moral status that should be given to the embryonic stem cell research and the developing embryos. While conducting embryonic stem cell research, the researchers get the required cells by pulling the already forming cells from the organs and tissues of a few days old embryo. These cells are referred as stem cells since many cells originate from one stem cell. Stem cells in this case lead to multiple specialized cells of all types that are capable of making up the lungs, heart, skin and other tissues while offering the possibility of a renewable source cells and tissues.
The research and application of embryonic stem cell research has often raised questions and moral issues in the society. Just like many new technologies in medicine including human cloning, successful development and application of cells for human therapeutic procedures will depend on their acceptability, efficacy and safety in the society (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008).
Why Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
The discovery, culturing and isolation of human embryonic stem cells has been seen as one of the most advanced and important breakthrough in the field of biomedicine (Chen et al, 2012). This promising knowledge has enabled the scientists and researchers to find out the possibility of cell-based therapies to treat some diseases. As a matter of fact, the embryonic stem cell research has been able to address one of the challenges facing the modern doctors by dealing with some terminal and irreversible tissue and organ failure. A number of life threatening conditions including kidney and heart diseases, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders (eg. Parkinson’s disease) etc can be treated using embryonic stem cell research (Adelson & Weinberg, 2010).
Human embryonic stem cell research can also be used by medical practitioners and researchers when making studies on how genetic materials in fertilized eggs can be medically used to create a whole organism (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Researchers may further make use of embryonic stem cell research to identify substances and drugs that are likely to cause serious problems to pregnant women. The medical practitioners and researchers may also make use of the tissues generated from embryonic stem cell research to test the toxicity of some drugs.
Stem cell research is also very useful in treating a number of neurological diseases including Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. This type of research can also be effectively applied when treating some types of cancers, stroke, cartilage and bone damage, autoimmune diseases and blood, liver diseases and diabetes type I while being used to improve the immune system. Moreover, whereas mature human cells cannot replace damaged cells effectively, human embryonic stem cell research has proved effective in repairing and replacing damaged cells (Chen et al, 2012).
The opponents of human embryonic research on the other hand maintain that this type of research is of no value and is actually destructive (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). They further argue that embryonic stem cell research is likely to encourage abortion and pre-mature deaths in order to obtain the required medical components (Harman, 2007). This argument on the other hand may be considered null and void. As a matter of fact, human embryonic stem cell research does not in any way encourage abortion. Instead, it makes use of the discarded fetuses or excess embryos which would have been otherwise destroyed. It is actually more prudent to make use of the discarded tissues to improve the well being and save a life than having the same being wasted without making good use of it.
Today, the stem cell research has gained a lot of public attention while being considered as both a fascinating area of biomedical research and a permanent area of legal and ethical controversies. Nonetheless, current age of biology coming with the new millennium is expected and should give hope to the sick and try to end the ever threatening deadly diseases (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Embryonic stem cell research should therefore be seen as part of a revolution in the field of medical research. In relation to some other methods of treatment, embryonic stem cells can be identified and harvested more easily, are capable of growing more easily and quickly in a laboratory compared to adult stem cells and can generally be obtained in bulk from one harvest.
The controversial debate in the stem cell research is however not on the goals of the research, but on the means through which the stem cells are obtained. As observed by Beauchamp & Walters (2008), the most significant controversy surrounding embryonic stem cell research is on the question of the moral status that should be accorded the embryo themselves and the embryonic stem cells. Ideally, the major challenge facing human stem cell research arises since people have not agreed on when life of a human being begins and if the embryos are human beings themselves.
As Harman (2007) observes, the most contradicting debate revolves around human embryonic stem cell research which requires the destruction of an embryo to derive the required cells. When thinking of human embryonic stem cell research, human beings find themselves asking a number of questions; when does life of a human being start? Are human beings intrinsically valuable? Is it ethical and right to create embryos for the sake of destroying them later? Do embryos produced in the laboratory qualify as developing human beings? Should such individuals be used to cure the diseases of sick patients? Will this benefit the society? In which ways are the rights of the embryos violated? Should the embryos be protected? If yes how?
Those who argue against human embryonic stem cell research maintain that embryonic stem cell research denies the living embryos an opportunity to develop and become full human beings. Although some people including Catholics strongly maintain that human embryos are living and holy creatures that deserve maximum protection like any other human being, others feel that embryos are not yet human beings and must therefore not be accorded the protection and care given to other human beings (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). They further argue that there is no guarantee that embryos have the potential of becoming whole human beings at their earliest stage of development. They should therefore not be accorded any protection. Whereas some religions including Muslims do not hold any legal or moral status of a human embryo until after the pregnancy is at least four months, some cultural settings hold that embryos should not be given any moral status until they are a few days old after being implanted in the uterus. In this case, should human embryonic research be allowed?
Some political-scientific fields including the human embryonic stem cell research is unclearly intersected between society, science and politics (Chen et al, 2012). Policy making in these areas tend to operate under ambiguous and uncertain conditions. Generally, embryonic stem cell research is one of medical strategies that have stirred emotions, created a number of dedicated opponents as well as fervent supporters while stimulating debates about the meaning and direction of modern medicine. In most Western countries today, philosophers, bioethicists, lawyers and scientists have often wondered about the limits, acceptability, and the promises of upcoming strategies which focus on manipulation, recovery and utilization of cells from human beings and animals for medical purposes (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Should the money of tax payers be used to fund embryonic stem cell research?
In order to ensure that the current policy issues surrounding the topic of human embryonic stem cell research are resolved effectively, it is important for all citizens to participate in public policy deliberations in a full and informed manner about the development and application of new medical technologies. The understanding of science is especially important when discussing policy and ethical issues. In this case, scientists should communicate the results of their research in ways that can be readily understood by a diverse audience while giving them an opportunity to participate in more public debates.
Should Human Embryo Stem Cell Research be continued?
In the face of extra ordinary advances in diagnosis, prevention and treatment of human diseases, devastating diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other diseases of the nervous system including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease have continued depriving people of their independence, health and well being. Through human embryonic stem cell research, people’s health has been restored and the pain of the suffering individuals minimized (Adelson & Weinberg, 2010). As a result, human embryo stem cell research should be continued. As a matter of fact, human stem cell research offers a massive potential for contributing to our understanding of fundamental human biology.
Kinsley’s functionalism theory asserts that human embryos are not developed to count and they do not generally look like developed human beings (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). On the other hand, these are not enough reasons to have them destroyed for the sake of already developed human beings. As a matter of fact, the already grown up human beings were once embryos. When given a chance to develop, the embryos will develop to human beings who cannot be killed. There is therefore no good reason of killing the embryos because one can still be a person although fail to function as a person. Even if the capacity of embryos to perform as personal beings may not be realized, they have inherent capacity to do so and are therefore important beings.
Human embryonic stem cell research should also not be continued based on the fact that the rights of human beings in a particular society are not based on their actual (current) capacities, but on their inherent capacities (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). In this case, whereas unborn babies lack a number of functional abilities, they have the inherent capacity of functioning like any other human being. They should therefore not be killed.
Human embryonic stem cell research should also not be continued for a number of othr reasons. First the approach assumes a parts view of human beings while confusing functioning as a person with being one. Human embryonic stem cell research also ignores moral considerations, equivocates on the question of personal identity, is intellectually dishonest and downplays the ethical alternatives of bio-medicine (Harman, 2007). Considering that people can still be treated without having to kill another human being, this type of approach is morally wrong and should not be considered or adapted in the first place. As a result, human embryonic stem cell research should not be continued.
On the other hand, the major breakthrough in embryonic stem cell research has taken place in America where a significant number of practitioners are involved in this type of research. In the United States of America, human embryonic stem cell research is generally financed by the companies or by the government though in a limited sense (Beauchamp & Walters, 2008). Nevertheless, funding any research that deliberately destroys the life of one human being to retain another life is not only ethically and morally wrong, but also an illogical and unnecessary act. With utmost honest, there is no right reason as to why the embryonic human beings should lose their lives for the sake of saving others.
However, the failure to continue human embryonic stem cell research may delay medical advancements and increased deaths from individuals who would have probably prolonged their lives through medical assistance derived from human embryonic stem cell research (Adelson & Weinberg, 2010). Moreover, the excess embryos created for infertility couples are bound to be destroyed through some means. Instead of have them thrown away, the excess embryos may be used in stem cell research without raising any ethical issues. Additionally, with advancing technology, stem cells are likely to be derived from the ailing patients and the embryonic stem cells may no longer be required.
In order to reduce/eliminate the existing controversies and opponents regarding human stem cell research, good policies on the procurement of embryos should be set. When conducting the research, only the excess embryos created for other research should be used. If embryos created for infertile couples are to be used, informed consent should be considered before the research proceeds.
In spite of the current debates and ethical issues involved, human embryonic stem cell research is an important aspect in the field of medicine. The policy makers and other stakeholders should therefore give it a chance. This is considering that every field of medicine has its own advantages and disadvantages. Whereas the advantages in embryonic stem cell research can effectively save lives of deserving human beings, the disadvantages can be dealt with through logical reasoning and procedures. In order to gain substantial public support while reducing the current controversies, the government and other funding agencies ought to be armed with a set of guidelines that would provide a framework for human embryonic stem cell research. This would be one way of assuring the public that the scientific community is attentive to ethical concerns and the cultural differences among human beings.
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