Stem cell research has emerged as one of the more novel fields in science in the past few decades. Human embryonic stem cells (ESC) in particular hold great potential to help mankind improve global health through regenerative medicine. The potential of stem cells for clinical applications has therefore led to calls for greater stem cell research. However, ESCs are derived from embryos and this derivation induces the destruction of human embryos (Ferraz and McGuckin 61). The controversy which has steeped stem cell research has been fueled by the ongoing public unease about the potential negative impacts of science on society.
Bahadur and Morrison reveal that despite a majority consensus on the acceptable use of embryos being established in the 1990s, the issue of human embryos is still entangled in polarized opinions on the moral rights and wrongs of embryo research. There is therefore deep division about stem cell research with some people seeing it as a moral aberration while others see it as beneficial and society enhancing. This paper will engage in concise yet informative research on stem cell research to reveal that it is greatly beneficial for society. The paper will review stem cells under several ethical approaches to justify this stand.
Brief History of Stem Cell Research
Stem cells are “undifferentiated cells that can self-renew and differentiate into more than one specialized cell type” (Power and Rasko 706). While embryonic stem cells were derived in lab mice as far back as 1981, achieving the same success with human blastocysts was more difficult to achieve. Human embryonic stem cells (ESC) were first isolated and cultured in 1998 from embryos that had been donated by couples who no longer had use for them for their infertility treatment (Hyun 71).
Stem cell research is concerned with harnessing the therapeutic potential of stem cells in a safe and regulated manner to deal with diseases. Leeb et al. note that while much of the popularity of stem cells comes from their alleged potential to increase the quality of life through repairing aging and diseased organs, the essence of stem cell research is to provide a deeper understanding of how tissues are maintained during adult life (Leeb 9).
Stem Cell Research
Stem cells are valuable as basic science tools that can help researchers to understand how and why diseases develop. ESC provides diverse opportunities for scientists to examine the development and function of both normal and diseased tissues in vitro and they can model the effects of a range of factors to identify those factors that predispose people to disease in later life. Power and Rasko reveal that this ability to model human diseases “in a dish” is of great importance especially for conditions such as acute childhood leukemia which would be otherwise difficult to study (709). From these studies, preventive measures can be formulated for people who are predisposed to the illnesses.
Stem cells promise monumental advances for medicine with clinical studies so far suggesting that stem cells could be used for damaged tissues regeneration. Ongoing experiments reveal that ESCs can promote the repair of damaged tissue and improve motor ability in individuals suffering from spinal cord injuries (Power and Rasko 709). Stem cell therapy for cardiac disease is also very promising, as current therapies can only delay the progression of disease but cannot provide a cure for heart failure (Leeb 11).
ESCs use is not only limited to treatment and these cells can be utilized in drug discovery. When new drugs are developed, pharmaceutical companies must undergo extensive preclinical evaluations to ensure that the drugs are safe for humans. Some of the most typical evaluations include screening for heart and liver toxicity. The limited supply of normal human hearts and livers makes testing both expensive and a long process for drug manufacturers. ESCs offer an unlimited supply of normal human heart and liver cells which can be used to carry out early tests for new drugs with no risk to any human being.
The excitement over stem cell research has resulted in gross exaggerations with stem cell remedies being promised for almost all the major health problems that human beings face. Rebecca reveals that most of the claims made about stem cell therapies lack a solid evidentiary foundation (332). The predictions are therefore a violation of the ethical responsibility of researchers and scientists to be accurate in describing the state of scientific exploration. As it currently stands, little practical application has been achieved from stem cells despite the major claims made.
ESC research is given much attention by the scientific and medical community because of the great potential it holds. This has been disadvantageous to other research efforts which could also lead to great advances in medicine. Ferraz and McGuckin assert that stem cells are not the sole means to cure all diseases (60). Other innovations in medicine and pharmacy can achieve the same positive outcomes.
Analysis of Stem Cell Research using Ethical Approaches
Respect for Autonomy is one of the principles of bioethics that can be used to analyze stem cell research. This principle dictates that an individual should be allowed to make their own independent decisions and that this decision should not be influenced by the medical professional. From this approach, the appropriateness of ESC research will be evaluated based on whether the donor of the ESC has given consent for the material to be used for research. As it currently stands, the embryos used in ESC research are obtained from couples who are undergoing fertility treatments and they are at liberty to choose how the embryos are used. These couples willingly donate them to the scientists to aid in the research efforts. As such, ESC research is appropriate since it does not violate the autonomy of the patients.
The principle of nonmaleficence which implies the avoiding of causing harm by the healthcare professionals to the patient can also be used to analyze stem cell research. Based on this principle, ESC should be continued since it does not cause harm to any person. The major source of stem cells used for research is donations by fertility clinics. Power and Rasko reveal that human embryonic stem cells are harvested from blastocyst-stage embryos that are created in vitro infertility clinics in a bid to help couples who have fertility problems (706). There is general agreement that these embryos cannot develop into human beings and if they were not used for stem cell research, they would just be discarded. Since the embryos involved are going to be discarded anyway, it is most prudent to use the embryos for research that could save lives.
The principle of beneficence articulates that action taken by health care providers should be of benefit to the patient. The actions should also be for the good of society as a whole. ESC research promises to cure diseases in the community and also reduce human suffering by providing research into diseases. The “embryo question” has polarized and dominated much of the public and governmental debate concerning stem cell research.
This has meant that little progress has been made in stem cell research despite the many benefits that the field promises. Opponents of ESC research state that adult stem cells which are can be harvested from adults, can be used instead of ESC. While it is true that Adult stem cells hold great promise for the treatment of injury and disease, it is currently hard to obtain an adequate supply of transplantable cells (Power and Rasko 708). It would therefore be in the best interest of the community for ESC research to continue unabated since its products would be beneficial for the entire community.
Another approach that can be used to analyze stem cell research is the principle of Justice. This approach suggests that the ethical action in any given situation is that which respects and ensures the protection of the moral rights of the people who are affected by the actions. Using this approach, stem cell research is unethical and should not be permitted. While unimplanted embryos do not have the physical characteristics required for them to be regarded as “human”, they have the potential to develop into humans.
The ethical acceptability of destroying these early embryos to derive ESCs is therefore not permissible according to the virtues of society. The moral acceptability of using embryo-derived cells in research remains controversial. It is for this reason that most governments only allow ESC research under specified conditions (Bahadur, Gulam, and Morrison 869). In addition to this, ESC research has led to misinformation as inaccurate descriptions have been given by supporters who stress the advances possible through embryonic stem cells with little regard for accuracy.
This paper has looked at some of the ethical dilemmas surrounding the use of embryos and how they can be resolved using ethical approaches. A brief history of ESC research has been provided and the reasons why ESC research is controversial given. From the paper, it has been noted that stem cells offer several benefits as well as setbacks. An analysis of the stem cell research issue using several influential ethical approaches has then been engaged in.
From this, it has been seen that several bioethics principles; Respect for Autonomy, nonmaleficence, and beneficence support the ethicalness of ESC research. The principle of justice is the only one that regards the research as unethical. Undoubtedly, the ethical, legal, and social controversy surrounding stem cell research has slowed the pace of science. Society has therefore been unable to enjoy the many benefits that advances in stem cell research can bring about. My opinion which is also supported by this research is that ESC research should be allowed to progress with little inhibition since it is ethical and beneficial to the community.
Bahadur, Gulam and Mark Morrison. Beyond the ’embryo question’: human embryonic stem cell ethics in the context of biomaterial donation in the UK. Reproductive BioMedicine Online 21.1 (2010): 868-874. Web.
Forraz, Nat and Colin McGuckin. The umbilical cord: a rich and ethical stem cell source to advance regenerative medicine. Cell Prolif 44.1 (2011): 60–69. Web.
Hyun, Insoo. The bioethics of stem cell research and therapy. The Journal of Clinical Investigation 120.1 (2010): 71-75. Print.
Leeb, Clive et al. New perspectives in stem cell research: beyond embryonic stem cells. Cell Prolif 44.1 (2011): 9–14. Web.
Power, Carl and John Rasko. Promises and challenges of stem cell research for regenerative medicine. Annals of Internal Medicine 155.2 (2011): 706-713. Print.
Rebecca, Dresser. Stem cell research as innovation: expanding the ethical and policy conversation. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 38.2 (2010): 332-341. Print.