Stem Cell Research: Ethical or Not?

High School Studies Research Paper for English 101 (4/3/2005)

Although America has been one of the world’s greatest scientific leaders, it has yet to capitalize off the potential of stem cell research. Many people dismiss the wonderful benefits of stem cells because they feel that the research is unethical, when in reality, it really is not. The United States government should federally fund stem cell research because of its unlimited potential.

Stem cells are a fairly new area of scientific research and have many people excited about their tremendous upside. Stephanie Watson, author of How Stem Cells Work, states, “Stems cells are the building blocks of the human body.” Inside these cells, which are located in each human embryo, are blank slates, meaning their fate is undecided. What gives them such great potential is that stem cells, unlike regular cells, are pluripotent, meaning they have the ability to develop into any type of cell, tissue, or organ in the human body. They also have the ability to self-renew, or reproduce themselves over many times (Embryonic 1). Stem cell research has been around nearly as long as there have been microscopes with which to observe stem cells. However, not until 1998 did researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison successfully isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells (Kemp 2). The dream of being able to harvest stem cells’ great ability then became a reality.

Scientists have several goals from the research of stem cells, one being to cure many debilitating diseases. One disease stem cells may have the ability to cure is diabetes. Diabetes affects about 16 million Americans, or about 5.9% of the United States population. It is the seventh leading cause of death in the US, killing about 200,000 people a year. Diabetes develops when the body’s immune system sees its own islet cells as foreign and attacks and destroys them. As a result, these islet cells, located in the pancreas, which normally produce insulin, are destroyed. Without insulin, glucose cannot enter the cell, which causes the glucose to accumulate in the blood. People with diabetes must take insulin several times a day to keep their blood normal and test their blood glucose concentration three to four times a day throughout their entire lives. Symptoms of diabetes include increased urination, hunger, thirst, weakness, weight loss, and can even cause damage to vital organs like the kidneys, eyes, heart, and brain. Currently the closest thing to a cure for diabetes is a complete pancreas transplant. The problem is, the amount of people in need of a transplant, far outweighs the amount of donors. Also, in order to prevent the body from rejecting the transplanted pancreas, patients take powerful drugs to suppress the immune system, making them susceptible to a host of other diseases. Scientists hope to eventually be able to cultivate and then develop stem cells into the needed insulin-producing islet cells of the pancreas, engineer them to avoid immune rejection, and then have them transplanted into the diabetes patient (“Diabetes” 1).

Researchers are also focusing on finding stem cell therapies for heart diseases. Cardiovascular diseases affect nearly 62 million people and are the number-one cause of death in the United States. Because heart muscle cells do not replace themselves naturally, those who now suffer from a heart attack, a congenital heart disease, or heart failure have few treatment options. And while heart transplants potentially could help more patients, again, the supply of organs is limited. Researchers are working on strategies to both prevent heart failure and to treat symptoms of heart disease. They are working to regenerate functional heart muscle mass to replace damaged tissue directly. They also study how to nurture stem cells into cells that, when remotely injected in the body, will hone in on damaged heart tissues. If these stem cells do regenerate heart muscle, the principle might be applied to diseases of the nervous system as well (“Heart” 1).

Another major disease stem cell researchers hope to cure is Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease, which affects a million people in the United States, often begins as a tremor in the hands or feet. Patients later develop trouble with walking and other daily activities as control over the body erodes. While some patients manage their symptoms with the help of medication, there is no cure for Parkinson’s disease. The disease is caused by a loss of nerve cells in the brain. These nerve cells produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine. If stem cells can be cultivated to become these dopamine-producing nerve cells, researchers believe that they could replace the lost cells. The treatment method being explored is transplanting stem cells into the target sites of the brain that need dopamine. Researchers have cultivated stem cells from bone marrow, making them very similar to the nerve cells that produce dopamine. They plan to test these cells in an animal model of Parkinson’s disease. Because Parkinson’s disease is caused by the failure of one type of cell to do its job, the dopamine producing cells in the thalamus, Parkinson’s is believed to be one of the most likely beneficiaries of stem cell research. (“Parkinson’s” 1). Other disorders of the brain or nervous system that might be treated with stem cells include ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke and spinal cord injuries (“Alzheimer’s” 1).

There are a variety of alternative benefits that would come from stem cell research besides curing diseases. This research also benefits the study of development events that cannot be studied directly in a human embryo. Directly studying a human embryo would cause major consequences such as birth defects, infertility and pregnancy loss. A more complete understanding of normal human development would lead to the prevention or treatment of abnormal development (“Pros” 2). Stem cells can also be used to test new medications and drugs for their safety and effectiveness. Testing out a medication on a stem cell for its response would work far more quickly and efficiently than in clinical trials. For example, Stephanie Watson states “Scientists could use a cancer stem cell line to determine whether an anti-tumor drug stops a specific cancer from growing.”

These great benefits do not come without controversy. CNN writer Eleni Berger states, “In the process of harvesting these stem cells the embryo is destroyed”. Where do scientists get these embryos? Up until a few years ago all stem cell research had been conducted on embryos left over from fertility treatments or abortions. These embryos were going to be destroyed anyway, so using them for stem cell research is putting them to good use. However, in 2001 scientists in Virginia announced they had created human embryos specifically for the purpose of stem cell research (Berger 1). This is when stem cell research becomes morally wrong. When these stem cells are destroyed it is killing a human life. Creating and then destroying a human life for the sole purpose of science is unjust. The only acceptable way of obtaining these cells is through fertility treatments and abortions.

In order for stem cell research to prosper, it needs the proper funding. Currently most of the money stem cell research receives is privately funded. Lawrence S.B. Goldstein, a professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of California, claims “This makes the research go much slower, and also means there will only be limited, if any, public input into the ethics and conduct of the work.” At this point, there is public funding for research on stem cells. Stem cell research may only receive NIH (National Institute of Health) funding if it meets a certain criteria set by President Bush and the United States government. First, the removal of cells from the embryo must have been initiated before President Bush outlined the policy, and the embryo from which the stem cell line was derived from must no longer have had a possibility of developing further as a human being. Second, the embryo must have been created for reproductive purposes, and no longer needed for that (“National” 1). The major flaw with this policy is that there may be no more new stem cell lines. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, states “The fact is many human embryos, at the point of conception, will not become human beings, even under the best of all possible developmental circumstances. Certain eggs and embryos are just unable to develop into fetuses, and later into babies.” So while it is a fact that human life begins with conception, it is not true that all conception is capable of becoming human life. Rather than destroying these embryos, they should be used for a productive purpose, such as stem cell research. There are also a number of spare embryos in the United States, many coming from vitro fertilization (IVF), a treatment for infertility. Currently, tens of thousands of embryos, which were spares from vitro fertilization, are sitting in liquid nitrogen, unwanted and unlikely to be used by anyone to ever try to make babies (Caplan 2). If these embryos aren’t being used to fulfill their primary objective, alternative uses such as stem cell research, should not be out of the question.

Stem cells need to be fully utilized and better publicly funded in the United States of America. The US needs to finally embrace this area of research and realize that its benefits far outweigh the risks. The number of people this area of research would affect is absolutely enormous. Once stem cells get the proper funding that they need, there will be great things to come.

 

 

 

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