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Stem Cell Research And Its Moral Applications

Updated on February 20, 2010

Regulated Benefits or Unregulated Abuse!

The basic, underlining fear about stem cell research is that it poses an unregulated opportunity for the 'cannibalization' of human beings. In other words, the general public is concerned that the practice kills certain human beings to benefit others. Despite its potential future benefit to human kind in the area of medical breakthroughs the question arises: - Is Stem Cell research morally right, or wrong?

Medical researchers view the use of stem cells as the next possible miracle treatment for human illness and disorders including diabetes, cancer, strokes, and Alzheimer's. Some researchers see the future use of stem cells as critically beneficial for replacing missing limbs.

Human stem cells are categorized by two distinct types:

1. Adult Stem Cells – similar to embryonic stem cells. Research and preliminary testing of this type are in the advance stages and have already been applied to human disorders with various results, most of which have been positive. Unfortunately these cells are limited in their flexibility and potential widespread use.

2. Embryonic Stem Cell – are primitive type’s cells which are pluripotent having the capability of developing into a variation of all the 220 types of cells found in the human body. These cells are derived from human embryos via a process which unfortunately results in the death of the embryo.

Enter Pro-lifers:

This group believe that human life, in the form of a fertilize egg becomes a human being at the time of fertilization and therefore killing an embryo in order to extract its stem cells is a form of homicide, punishable by law. Pro-lifers are vehemently opposed to stem cell research particularly the use of embryonic cells. They believe this practice is highly unethical. They argue that Stem Cells do not necessarily have to come from an embryo. They can be acquired from multiple human sources such as umbilical cords, the placenta, amniotic fluid, adult tissues and organs such as bone marrow, fat from liposuction, regions of the nose, and even from cadavers up to 20 hours after death.

There are others who disagree. This opposing viewpoint believes that although an embryo has the potential to develop into a person, it’s not a person at the time of fertilization – it has no brain, no sensory organs, and no ability to think or reason for itself. It’s not aware of its environment, consciousness, internal organs, arms, legs, head, etc. and therefore, it’s not a human being by definition. With this perspective, this group does not believe that the use of embryonic stem cells is a form of homicide, or that the research itself, is unethical.

In 2005, at the peak of the ethical debate among the opposing viewpoints, researchers discovered another embryo-like stem cell, taken from the placenta known as amniotic epithelial cells – named after the amnion, the outer membrane of the placenta’s amniotic sac. These type of cells, like embryonic stem cell can develop into a variation of several different tissue types including liver cells, neurons, heart cells, and pancreatic cells with great potentials for producing insulin and glial cells which are critical properties of the nervous system. This latest discovery appears to combine the best of both embryonic and adult stem cells in that:

1. They do not require the destruction of an embryo which should satisfy the requirements of the pro-lifers.

2. They can be manipulated into the development of a wide range of cell types and they are easier to obtain than embryonic stem cells.

Preliminary testing result suggests that these cells can double in number every 36 hours with the ability to divide at least 250 times without mutating or forming tumors. Through preliminary tests these cells have already been converted into bone, heart muscle, blood vessels, fat, nerve and liver tissues in lab mice. However, unlike embryonic stem cells, they cannot reproduce indefinitely. According to the medical researchers at the Stanford Cancer Center in Stanford, California these master cells grow and divide uncontrollably, producing new cancer cells thereby enhancing the growth and metastasis of tumors. Unfortunately, cancer has been the enemy of my family for many generations. It's claimed several family members from great grand parents to my grandparents, my father, and two siblings. The study of stem cell research in the area of cancer causing cells would be highly beneficial particularly if the cells can be isolated and characterize for each stem cells for each human cancer - thereby, allowing a better understanding of cancer forming tumors to determine the best possible cure.

By understanding the development processes of these cells and the genetic mutations that cause them to act abnormally, researchers can identify specific therapeutic targets towards developing groundbreaking treatments that can effectively eliminate cancer at its source. Whether the public agrees with these test or not appear to be irrelevant as it is obvious that research and animal testing, in some cases – human testing will continue despite public outcry. Therefore the ultimate question will be how to regulate the practice. As of today there are no standardize regulations on the use of embryonic stem cell which involves taking the life of an embryo. There is only a moral law which has little impact on the legal community. Without adequate legal regulation what would stop researchers from full fledge, private human cannibalization or cloning?

Unfortunately, stem cell treatment is largely based on possibilities rather than persuasive evidence of effectiveness. Given the decade-long interest and research among scientists it’s fair to ask why we lack convincing data on the test results. Particularly data on the use of embryonic stem cells that’s intended to treat diabetes, Parkinson's disease, and other medical problems. One would think that the medical profession would have a trillion or more gigabytes of stored data they can draw on to validate and show confident proof of effectiveness which may ease the public’s suspicions of their intent.

Enters President Barack Obama:

President Barack Obama supports relaxing federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. He voted for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, which was vetoed by then President George W. Bush. If it passes, the bill will allow federal funding to be used for research on stem cell lines obtained only from discarded human embryos originally created for fertility treatments. His Administration feels that the need to fund research on the actual potential of human embryonic stem cells to treat human disease is critical and he’s pushing legislation to allow a quick passage through the house. So, with this information before us we’re left with a critical question:

Are the Moral Applications of Stem Cell Research Acceptable?

According to the polls conducted by several medical professions, including the New England Journal of Medicine, most types of stem cell research are morally acceptable, and encouraged. According to these findings only research using embryonic stem cells raises moral objections. In my opinion, (and I should clarify that I am not a medical professional), research with stem cells from human embryos requires great sensitivity and careful moral considerations with a high standard of ethical overview. Stem Cell research and its usage are very complex and somewhat secretive and researchers’ intents are not always in the public’s best interests. With this in mind the Obama Administration feels that it is essential to lift the NIH (National Institutes of Health) ban on Stem Cell research with the implementation of an appropriate regulatory mechanism for governing and monitoring the process to prevent unethical behavior.

Personally, I have an open mind on the subject and feel that Stem Cell research should receive limited funding with strict guidelines. However, use of human embryonic stem cell should be from discarded human embryos originally created for fertility treatments. My major concern - Stem Cell research is not yet a legal issue, it’s a moral issue and you can not effectively legislate morality (we certainly do want the government legislating it). Therefore, without adequate monitoring the loop hole allowing abuse will be larger than the Milky Way galaxy itself.

So where does this leave us? Do we fund Stem Cell research with strict regulatory guidelines or do we make it a matter for private institutions and accept the risks of unregulated abuse?

Either way, despite public outcry - Stem Cell research will continue.

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