Stem Cells: A Moral Hazard?

The term Stem Cells is one that strikes a chord with every scientist of the life sciences community. In fact, as of today, if you ask any budding biologists as to which area he or she wishes to do research in, the answer is directly or indirectly gets related to stem cells. We have read numerous articles on stem cells and stem cells patents, but the question is, what are stem cells? Why are there so many debates surrounding them?

To explain the concept of stem cells in a very simple way, one can say that stem cells are a mass of cells that are isolated from an embryo on the fourth day after its maturation, when it is called a “blastocyst”. Now the question arises, what is so special in these mass of cells? Are they not like any other bunch of cells? And the answer is- No, they are not like any other ordinary bunch of cells. They have this unique property of dividing and differentiating into any cell of the body depending on the medium provided for the growth. Now just imagine that if we have a bunch of cells that actually have the potency to develop into any cell of the body, it answers our questions for so many incurable diseases like leukemia, diabetes, Parkinson’s and even Alzheimer’s! In fact if we progress further in areas of stem cell research we may not even have to use fellow humans and animals for clinical trials!

The isolation of embryonic stem cells by James Thompson of the University of Wisconsin in 1998 was a path breaking discovery. However the discovery was met with various hurdles as a significant minority of Americans believed that using the cells for research and to treat disease is immoral because extracting the cells destroys the embryos. The topic of stem cells has been a matter of serious political debates as well. But the discovery that became an excellent political propaganda received many restrictions especially in the U.S. when, in 2001, President Bush restricted federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells, setting back efforts in the U.S. for years while world-class programs developed in Europe, China, and elsewhere.

However, recently President George Bush removed a major barrier to stem cell research by resolving patent issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research. By this he has opened the door of progress in stem cell research in the US. This has given a new ray of hope to the American scientists as now scientists are poised to use stem cells to test for toxicity in drugs being developed; with the hope to replace animal testing, which is notoriously unreliable, with human stem cells to determine whether or not a candidate medication is safe.

Coming to India, stem cell research has a great future and is a much needed solution to various diseases and implants. The government has been put in a scurry of activity to develop cogent guidelines for installing a robust regulatory regime and a monitoring agency to augment competent stem cell research in India. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has drafted a set of guidelines for regulation of stem cell research, which is currently open for public examination and debate. Where countries like China and Korea have succeeded a lot in this sector, India still seems to be an amateur. With Reliance Life Sciences and the AIIMS doing a lot of work in this area, we still have a long way to go. In fact, I feel that the scientific community needs to tackle with the issue of stem cell research with proper insight and steps. The government should frame a proper policy. With the U.S. and Germany coming back into play, our country too should not be left behind.

But the issue of ethics cannot be separated. It is unfortunate that stem cells are often considered synonymous with embryonic stem cells. Technically speaking whereas embryonic stem cells can be extracted only from embryos, stem cells in general may also be found in the umbilical cords of healthy babies, or even in adult tissues like hair or skin. Yes, there are legitimate ethical issues to be dealt with, but imagine being able to grow a replacement kidney from a single strand of your hair! Imagine repairing spinal cord damage to free someone from chronic pain or help them walk again.

Now as far as my take on the topic is concerned, I feel that honestly much of the debate of morality on stem cells is merely another political propaganda by the members of parliament all over the world. Now when I look at it from the scientific point of view, I look at it as extracting a bunch of cells from the blastocyst which is a four day old embryo. Till then, there is no certainity to say that the embryo will even conceive into a baby. And above all is this four day old embryo actually a human being? And when we are talking about morals, I have a question too, is helping people with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer and many other diseases immoral? So if we look at it thus, is an embryo more significant than a whole life? Take a classic scene in which there is a situation to save a pregnant mother or her child, and you save the mother… so are we trying to say that it is immoral to save the mother! (In this case it’s not even an embryo. It is a full grown child.)

I would like to end with a paragraph from the article of Dr. Joseph Verdi from Ontario in which he says –

“There are legitimate concerns about the potential misuse of stem cell research. One is the fear that scientists may clone people, or that people might fertilize human eggs only to “farm” fetuses and harvest stem cells. There are already laws that forbid such reprehensible acts. Nearly every powerful new technology can not only be used for powerful good, it also has the potential for misuse. Should we give up all the potential benefits because of fears of the dark side? Or should we instead learn to control the power and harness the benefits? Just as there are careful controls on the ethical treatment of laboratory animals, and bans on the sale of organs for transplantation, so too there must be careful ethical controls on the sources and use of stem cells.”

Ayushi Uberoi

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