When Ernest McCulloh and James Till discovered, in the 1960s, a certain type of cell which they called ‘Stem cells’, little would they have thought that it would lead to one of the most fierce ethical and scientific debates of the 21st century. With right wing politicians, conservatives and members of religious establishments on one side and a group of scientists and liberal thinkers on the other, this issue has snowballed into a big controversy.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are cells found in all organisms which are multi-cellular. They are cells which can renew themselves through mitosis and develop into myriad specialised cell types. Stem cells can be grown into different types of cells compatible for different body parts through cell culture. They can be made into muscle cells, nerve cells or a cell of any tissue in any body part. Thus stem cells offer a terrific potential in medicine by providing a method to regenerate lost cells and thus lost body parts.
Stem cells can be broadly classified into two types- embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. The former type is the one that has been the subject of all the controversy.
Embryonic stem cells
Embryonic stem cells (ES cells) are cells derived from the inner cell mass of an early stage foetus, scientifically known as blastocyst. These cells are termed pluripotent cells, meaning they have the capacity to turn into any type of germ layer. Thus they can be the cells in our lungs or stomach (known as the endoderm layer), or the cells in the blood or bones (known as mesoderm) or the cells in our nervous system (ectoderm). Pluripotent cells can give rise to any foetal or adult cell type. Due to their potentially unlimited capacity for renewal and high plasticity, scientists think that these cells are best for tissue replacement or regenerative medicine. They can be potential cures for Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease. Everything, from paper cuts to cancer could be cured using the effective deployment of these cells. Certain cells of our body like the nerve cells in our brain do not renew themselves once they have been destroyed. Once a person loses a brain cell, it is not regenerated. However, with embryonic stem cells, the lost cells can be regained. This application of the embryonic stem cell is potentially life saving.
The stem cell research controversy is an ethical one, revolving around the use and destruction of human embryos. Pro-life activists and debaters argue that the human embryo, whatever be its age, is ultimately a human being. Therefore, the use of an embryo for research and it’s resultant death should be treated as murder, they say. On the other hand people who support stem cell research say that an avenue which could potentially save millions of people from grave diseases should not be left unexplored.
One of the biggest arguments against stem cell research is the argument of ‘value of life’. This argument is based on the belief that an embryo is equivalent to a human being and therefore has as much right to life as anybody else. An embryo turns into a foetus in the course of time and then is born as a human being. Therefore, it is argued that the whole procedure is unethical. People opposed to stem cell research argue that through this research scientist are tampering with the life of a human being without permission. Other people argue against stem cell research based on medical grounds. Mice treated for Parkinson’s using embryonic stem cells have been observed to have developed brain tumour in as much as 20 percent of the cases. Also, embryonic stem cells stored for a long period of time have been observed to have developed chromosome anomalies that create cancer cells. Another argument is that stem cells which are not embryonic can also be used for research. Adult stem cells, taken from the bone marrow and other such parts of the body can be used for all the purposes an embryonic stem cell would fulfill.
People who are in favour of stem cell research are mainly scientists and a few liberals. It is a fact that, so far, all the embryos used for stem cell research are embryos that would have been destroyed anyway. Scientists procure rejected embryos from IVF clinics and conduct experiments on them. Based on this fact scientists say that they cannot be accused of unethical conduct. The basic argument is about whether the embryo used can be treated as a full human being or not. The blastocyst used for embryonic stem cell research is just four or five days old and contains some hundred cells. It does not have any organs or a nervous system. Thus it does not feel any pain and is incapable of any action other than the basic ones of a cell, such as breathing. It is estimated that four hundred thousand embryos in IVF hospitals in the United States alone are slated for destruction. So, if these embryos are used for research that could save a lot of lives, scientist argue, they would be creating something from nothing and contributing to the well-being of the human race. It is not an individual and so that principle does not apply. Scientist use the argument of utilitarianism to argue that the benefits of stem cell research vastly outweigh the ethical issues it raises. The personal, economic and social costs of the diseases embryonic stem cell research can cure are far more than the costs associated with the destruction of embryos. Some scientists argue that embryonic stem cells are superior to adult stem cells in a number of respects. They are easier to grow in cultures, divide faster, are more abundant and treat a wider range of diseases. Adult stem cells take longer time to be ready for use, but in emergencies time is an important factor and so adult stem cells may not serve the purpose. There is also a concern that adult stem cells may not reproduce as accurately as embryonic ones as the former is prone to losing genetic information after multiple divisions.
The way forward
The major question is whether governments should allow government funding for this type of research or not. In the United States, the Bush administration had approved only a limited funding for stem cell research. But now, the Obama government has removed all bans and hurdles facing stem cell research and has approved funding. It is interesting to note that the majority of the opposition to stem cell research also comes from the quarters which oppose abortion rights. It is mainly the religious establishments and dyed in the wool conservatives who oppose it. It is also notable that in many countries in Europe research in stem cells has been active and positive results have been shown.
One way to move forward would be to fast forward research on adult stem cells to make them as effective and versatile as embryonic ones, thus sidestepping the ethical issue altogether. Or governments around the world will have to take some brave decisions and approve embryonic stem cell research. There is no doubt that stem cell research will be a great leap forward for mankind and will improve the quality of life across the globe. It is up to governments around the world to find an adequate solution to the pressing problem. The faster they do that, more people will benefit from a wonder of science.
Aju Basil James