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The stem cell controversy: saving lives or saving eugenics?

Stem Cell Research, Stem Cell Research Controversy, Stem Cell Research and ethical debates

Stem Cell Research, one of the most fascinating fields of Biological Sciences, has spawned a whole new world of scientific inquiries and cutting-edge discoveries in record speed. Given the enormous potential of stem cell therapies, the research is set to revolutionize the practice of medicine and thereby improve the quality of life, and human life spans. Yet, to what extent should scientific optimisms be explored, particularly when researchers begin to indulge in the experimentation of early human life forms? Is commoditization of life forms justified in order to satiate the researcher’s quest for path-breaking discoveries? Can scientific spheres afford to overlook the rising ethical, moral and religious debates surrounding stem cell research and continue their pursuits?

The present-day stem cell controversy is largely mired in emotional and ethical debates and a common man is only forced to wonder whether stem cell research is a watchword to be feared or be welcomed. That, whether stem cell research is a quest for saving lives or saving eugenics, can find answers if researchers can fulfill moral and ethical obligations before furthering their agenda.

The fascinating creation of stem cells that eventually give rise to a specific specialized cell, have the proven ability of cell division for infinite periods in culture and to give rise to specialized cells. It is not the stem cell research or the methods of stem cell research that is creating the controversy. The stem cell issue is largely over the source, creation and the usage of stem cells in the guise of providing quality life to mankind. This is what makes stem cell research a very complicated subject, be it scientifically, ethically or religiously.

With opinions largely divided across the globe, it is now as if the entire mankind is sitting up to evaluate whether the ends justify the means. Authorities around the world have however, begun to formulate regular frameworks so as to clarify that stem cell is as much a social and ethical challenge as medical research breakthroughs. A wide variety of ethical, moral and religious viewpoints are herein discussed and deliberated with the intent to evaluate whether feeding the researcher’s quest by destruction of live embryos is, at any point in time, justified at all.

In the context of human development, a sperm fertilizes with an egg to form a single cell, forms a zygote which eventually develops into an entire organism. The fertilized cell starts the process of cell division immediately, and in about four days after cell division, the fertilized cell acquires the ability to develop into specialized cells. It is called a ``blastocyst” that appears like a hollow sphere of cells comprising an outer layer and an inner mass of cells.
It is the inner mass of cells that go on to developing all sorts of tissues in the body. The inner mass of cells are called pluripotent, meaning, they have the ability to form many kinds of cells, but all types of cells that are not necessary for the ensuing fetal development. With further specialization, the pluripotent cells become “Stem Cells” that form cells for a particular body function. They are also called “multipotent stem cells”. So it is these multipotent stem cells whose significance in early human development is perceived to be extraordinary. Their presence, however, is seen even in children and adults.

Every new cell formed by stem cell division has great potential to either remain a stem cell or go on to become a different type of cell that can perform a specialized function. What distinguishes them from other types of cells is that these cells, under laboratory conditions, stem cells can be induced to become cells with specialized functions such as insulin producing cells, brain cell, and kidney cell and so on. This is the basis for research for cutting-edge medical discoveries that promise to cure a variety of debilitating diseases and therefore reduce pain and suffering.

However, for over 30 years, stem cells were being derived from the bone marrow of adult human beings were used in the treatment of blood related conditions such as leukemia and lymphoma. As such, adult stem cells were known to produce cell types similar to cell types in which they reside. For example, a blood-forming adult stem cell in the bone marrow known has as Hematopoietic stem cell gives rise to the many types of blood cells such as red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.

A recent research on adult stem cells has generated a great deal of excitement among scientific spheres as scientists have discovered adult stem cells in many more tissues than they once thought possible (other than Hematopoietic stem cells). This finding has led scientists to ask whether adult stem cells could be used for transplants. As such, adult blood forming stem cells, derived from the bone marrow, have been used in transplants for 30 years. Under adequate conditions, certain kinds of adult stem cells seem to have the ability to differentiate into a number of different cell types. If this differentiation of adult stem cells can be controlled in the laboratory, these cells may become the basis of therapies for many serious common diseases.

Several years of continued research has now shown the possibility that stem cells from one tissue may be able to give rise to cell types of a completely different tissue (like a hematopoietic stem cells that can develop into heart muscle, blood cells becoming a neuron, and so on). This phenomenon – called plasticity – has been a breakthrough in stem cell therapies for several life–threatening conditions and is a very active area for continued investigation. Scientists hope to learn how to steer these cells and cultivate them to become specific specialized cells a particular patient might need.

It is now proved that adult stem cells have been identified in many organs and tissues in human beings. One important point to understand about adult stem cells is that stem cells are found in very small numbers in each tissue. Stem cells are thought to reside in a specific area of each tissue where they may remain quiescent (non-dividing) for many years until they are activated by disease or tissue injury. The adult tissues reported to contain stem cells include brain, bone marrow, peripheral blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscle, skin and liver.

Scientists in many laboratories are trying to find ways to grow adult stem cells in cell culture and manipulate them to generate specific cell types so they can be used to treat injury or disease. Some examples of potential treatments include replacing the dopamine-producing cells in the brains of Parkinson's patients, developing insulin-producing cells for type I diabetes and repairing damaged heart muscle following a heart attack with cardiac muscle cells.
However, scientists say that adult stem cells, which can give rise to all cell and tissue types, have not been found yet. At present, hematopoietic stem cells are the only type of stem cells that are used to treat human diseases such as bone marrow transplants, treatment of leukemia, lymphoma and several inherited blood disorders.

Whatever the discoveries and the future potential of adult stem cells may be, scientists around the world face a huge technical challenge in terms of deriving the required amounts of adult stem cells, which makes it difficult to isolate, purify and culture. Scientists are yet to find out how to control the development of adult stem cells into different types of cells in the body. Moreover, experiments on humans have had to be met with reservations as adult stem cells that are available for research are likely to be rejected by a patient’s immune system.

Adult stem cells are often present in only minute quantities and can therefore be difficult to isolate and purify. There is also evidence that they may not have the same capacity to multiply as embryonic stem cells do. Finally, adult stem cells may contain more DNA abnormalities—caused by sunlight, toxins, and errors in making more DNA copies during the course of a lifetime. These potential weaknesses might limit the usefulness of adult stem cells, it is thought.

This was, in fact, the most persuading reason for considering research in human embryonic stem cells (hESC). That, human embryonic stem cells could offer greater development potential than adult stem cells, come with the fact that embryonic stem cells (unlike adult stem cells) may be pluripotent – that is, these stem cells have the ability to produce cells present in all kinds of tissues the embryo – rather than being mere multipotent, which may be restricted to specific cell types.

Embryonic Stem cells show larger plasticity, giving scope to treat a wider range of diseases. Another claim to superiority of embryonic stem cells over adult stem cells is that embryonic stem cells divide more rapidly than adult stem cells, thus showing a larger scope to generate larger number of stem cells for therapeutic means. On the other hand, division of adult stem cells may not be fast and large enough to provide immediate treatment. Also, in cases of treating genetic disorders, adult stem cells obtained from the patient’s body might quite be result oriented. Similarly, certain DNA abnormalities seen in adult stem cells are the direct effect of toxins and sunlight. Embryonic stem cells do not pose such structural and environmental hurdles.

The present-day line of research with human embryonic stem cells is to isolate pluripotent stem cells that are just a few days old to then create pluripotent stem cell lines. These stem cell lines, can grow indefinitely under laboratory conditions. The lines are often frozen for storage and distribution to other researchers. Researchers obtain "stem cell lines" from tiny embryos from fertility clinics, which routinely collect and store 10 or more of them from couples or single women undergoing in-vitro fertilization.

Concrete research with human embryonic stem cells was possible only recently when in 1998, researchers from the University of Wisconsin led by Dr. James Thomson derived a technique to isolate and culture pluripotent stem cells. Although their feat revealed the huge potential of stem cells in changing the management of medical sciences, further significant research had to wait for a good two years until President George Bush announced federal funding for stem cell research on August 9, 2001. As such, several researchers bank on federal funding to further their work.

It is in the wake of political sanctions and unhindered progress in human embryonic stem cell research that the controversy is assuming dreadful proportions. Opponents challenge to question the methodology to create and human embryonic stem cell lines. The present state of technology requires the destruction of human embryos, thus posing a huge gamut of ethical, moral and religious obligations.

The present state of technology to procure human embryonic stem cells calls for destruction of live embryos. Among different methods to obtain live embryos, fertility clinics are good sources of live embryos. During in-vitro fertilization, clinics usually fuse more number of eggs with a sperm, with an idea that fertilization can be repeated if implanting a fertilized egg does not succeed in the first attempt. This practice has resulted in a huge backlog of unused embryos in stored in fertility clinics. Dr. James Thompson’s source of live embryo for his breakthrough research in 1998 was also from one such fertility clinic. Aborted young fetuses are another source of obtaining human embryonic stem cells. In Thompson’s experiments, another biologist John Gearhart from Hopkins Institute is learnt to have received a fetus donated by a woman in an abortion clinic.

A recent consideration was obtaining embryos from cloning. Although in its nascent stage, some institutions are trying to create cloned human embryos as a source of human embryonic stem cells. Similarly, the Jones Institute of Virginia (of the first US test-tube baby fame) is creating human embryos by mixing sperms and eggs expressly.

The controversy arises because live human embryos and fetuses are used for stem cell research purposes and any experiment/research using human life forms (whatever the stage may be) does have deep rooted religious and moral convictions. Obtaining suitable live pluripotent cells that have the ability to multiply are got only from live embryos that are existent, early-age life forms. What’s adding to the concern of many is that scientists, in the guise of research and experiments are promoting large-scale destruction of fetuses and embryos.

The argument is that human life begins immediately when a sperm fertilizes with the egg and this human life should be inviolable. So is science capitalizing on an abhorrent procedure? Or should it be argued that scientists are making legitimate use of already aborted fetuses and it is unfair to deprive those suffering from serious diseases and injuries of a potentially revolutionary therapy?

It is said that in the United States alone, there are about 400,000 such to-be-discarded embryos. (www.geneticengineering.com). So, scientists may argue that the aborted fetuses are those which are slated to be destroyed anyway, or simply be stored indefinitely. Their opinion will eventually, only raise fears that human embryonic stem cell research could lead to under-table businesses to obtain embryos and fetuses, causing problems in the cadaver black market, which may in turn, propel illegal sale of fetuses worldwide. Would this be another easy channel for cloning?

President Bush seems quite aware of the moral, religious and political objects that would rise from human embryonic stem cell research during his August 2001 announcement. “Federal funding for stem cell research was allowed for existing stem cell lines that were derived from embryos prior to that point in time, and that no new embryos were to be killed for the research,” he had announced.

While the debate continues even as researchers have achieved much tangible progress resulting in stem cell research becoming so alluring, exciting, and desired by so many, the other equally major controversy is the research on combining stem cell research and cloning technology. In this process – called somatic cell nuclear transfer -- embryos are created for the specific purpose of generating tissues used for transplantation. It is becoming highly controversial the embryo, upon uterine implantation, can develop into a human being. As such, cloning itself is illegal in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, where any research involving human cloning itself is prohibited.

The thought of such research itself is unconscionable. The US-based Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity CBHD seconds the sentiment. “Human embryos ought not to be the subjects of experimental research aimed at benefitting someone other than the embryos themselves. Human embryos are just that, human. The fact that they are very young human beings does not therefore give us the right to use them in destructive research for the benefit of others.
The Center strongly counters researchers’ point of view that the embryos used for experiments are but spare embryos that would be discarded anyway. “This is not necessarily the case, as such embryos can be "adopted" and implanted in the wombs of women wishing to act on the embryos' behalf. However, even if these embryos were destined to die, we would still not be justified in killing them--our most vulnerable citizens--for the sake of improving or saving the lives of other citizens,” it quite rightly feels.

Like CBHD, there are several religious leaders and thinkers who feel that the National Institute of Health, the authority on stem cell research in the United States, must be encouraged to seek ways to increase funding for these alternative and promising avenues of research which do not rely on the destruction of human embryos. By doing so, researchers can take the moral high road rather than the ethical back roads and uphold the law of the land. And there are avenues in this direction.

An article that appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience Research mentions about a certain Dr. Ira Black of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey has been able to transform blood stem cells derived from adult animals into neurons which may be used to repair brain cells and spinal cords.

More such discoveries may come to light if alternative means for stem cell research such as these are devised and encouraged.In human embryonic stem cell research, it is the basic respect for human life and dignity that is in question. Several religious organizations including the Roman Catholic Church and many conservative evangelicals, have opposed stem cell research rather vehemently. It seems that several religious organizations are, as such, divided over the beginnings of life, at what stage can a form be termed ‘living’, and the ends of science.

There are but differing embryonic stem cell research policies in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Canada, and the United States of America and the approaches of differing religious traditions are also different.

By and large, President Bush’s informed decision to allow partial support for human embryonic stem cell research has been welcomed by many religious and ethical groups and call the President’s decision “a sound moral compromise” and are impressed by his thoughtful analysis.
However, there are some others who feel that even giving a partial go-ahead to stem cell research is morally unacceptable. This is exactly what the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a recent press release, condemned Bush’s statement. "The federal government, for the first time in history, will support research that relies on the destruction of some defenseless human beings for the possible benefit of others," it has said, in strong opposition to Bush’s statements.

Call it social engineering for an improved breed of mankind, or eugenics, opponents see human embryonic stem cell research as the scientist’s desire to remake humanity by coercive means. And typically, in the modern bioethics literature, many would like to call human embryonic stem cell researchers as eugenicists, wherein scientists hope to achieve their ultimate goal to improve and refine human genetic qualities, more often through unethical means.

With arguments and counter-arguments reigning supreme in the context of human embryonic stem cell research, defining what improvements are desired or beneficial to human gene pool is almost conclusively, is a cultural choice rather than a matter that can be determined objectively (be it empirically or through scientific inquiry). Moreover, which ideas should be described as "eugenic" are still controversial in both public and scholarly spheres. This is why eugenics has often been deemed a pseudoscience.

While the science of genetics has increasingly provided means by which certain characteristics and conditions can be identified and understood, given the complexity of human genetics, culture, and psychology there is at this point no agreed objective means of determining which traits might be ultimately desirable or undesirable.

One needs to humbly admit that human embryonic stem cell research, as a means of holding promise to the field of regenerative medicine in the future, is still in its infancy. Despite path breaking efforts by the scientific communities in this field, there is no guarantee of total intended success out of their research. Nevertheless, rationalists believe that it doesn’t mean that scientific communities sweep their efforts down the carpet and stop finding ways to eliminate human suffering. The advocate that religious groups and bioethics committees should articulate a precedent for demanding a morally higher ground that scientists are obliged to uphold. This would, at least, stop commoditization of potential human beings and not work for pseudoscience, as eugenics is thought to be. As such, research work on adult stem cells must be encouraged; there are certain very recent indications that adult stem cells could be equally significant and result-oriented as embryonic cells.

Whatever the advancement in human embryonic stem cell research may be, one can conclusively submit that rather than limiting the heights to which scientists aspire, bioethicists can, and should help spur stem cell research on to even higher levels of excellence by soliciting them to engage only in experiments that are staked on morally high ground. One must never forget that scientific discoveries do have moral and ethical obligations to fulfill before furthering their agenda, It is only then that the ends will justify the means. The scientific community will come out clear on whether stem cell research is saving life or saving eugenics only if vow not to override moral mandates.

Published: 2008-01-23
Author: Paawana Poonacha Cariappa

About the author or the publisher
Byline articles for publications,PR content for corporates, syndicated articles for bigwigs, rhymes and short stories for children, and poetry for the like-minded...taking forward over 10 years experience as journalist/writer, presently working as Content Head for a Mumbai-based communications firm. You can view my bylines as "Paawana Poonacha" or "Paawana Poonacha Cariappa".

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