Stem Cell Research and the Future of Humanity

Stem cell research has become one of most controversial topics in recent medical history. With each new medical discovery in stem cell rises, questions arise regarding the value of human life and the possibilities that it entails. Arguments surrounding stem cell research go beyond the science. It is not a matter of what we could do, it is a matter of whether or not we should do it. The topic of stem cell research reaches beyond medical science and into academics areas such as ethics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and religion. There are many questions, but not as many answers to be found. This research will support the position that stem cell research is a blessing and should be continued because it has the potential to extend life for those who need it. It will support stem cell research from the standpoint that is a socially responsible practice that will make miracles possible in the future for patients who need it.

History of Stem Cell Research

The history of stem cell research began with the advent of the microscope in the 1800s. Invention of the microscope led to the knowledge that cells were the building blocks of life and that cells could regenerate and produce other cells (UK Stem Cell Foundation). In the early 1900s it was discovered that the various types of blood cells, white, red, and platelets, all came from a certain type of cell dubbed a "stem cell." This led to the use of bone marrow transplants in patients receiving radiation and chemotherapy in the 1950s. However, in 1963, researchers McCulloch and Till found that transplanted mouse bone marrow cells had self-renewing qualities (UK Stem Cell Foundation).

Research in the 1980s and 1990s opened the door for modern stem cell research. During this time, researchers were able to target and alter human genetic material. They also developed methods for growing human cells in the laboratory (UK Stem Cell Foundation). In 1998, a breakthrough in this technology allowed James Thomson to remove cells from spare embryos in fertility clinics (UK Stem Cell Foundation). This launched a stream of controversy by certain religious groups, as these embryos were considered to be the beginnings of life. It was argued that one could not destroy one life for the sake of science without dire moral and ethical consequences.

Just as there were those that were against stem cell research, there were also those that were in favor of it. To date, over 2,000 scholarly articles have been published on stem cell research (UK Stem Cell Foundation). Critics of stem cell research could not stop the flow of progress and techniques. Embryonic stem cells are yet to be used in clinical trials. However, adult stem cells are now used to treat over 100 diseases, including may deadly forms of cancer and heart disease (UK Stem Cell Foundation).

The possibilities that lie in stem cell research are just beginning to be uncovered. Research is currently under way to use stem cells to produce replacement tissues, organs, or to repair defective or diseased organs. In the distant future, there is a possibility of using stem cells to regenerate severed limbs from the patient's own cells. Many of this research is far in the future, but the possibilities have entered the minds of the research community and will likely pave the way to the future.

2.0 Understanding Stem Cell Research

In order to understand fully the controversies and possibilities that lie in stem cell research, one must have a basic understanding of stem cell research and what it entails. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the potential to develop into a number of different types of cells (National Institutes of Health). Stem cells divide to help repair the body as long as the animal or human is alive. When a stem cell divides, it can become a specialized type of cell, or it can remain a stem cell to be used later (National Institutes of Health). The ability to specialize or remain a stem cell is the characteristic that distinguishes stem cells from other cells in the body. Stem cells are constantly at work, repairing worn out or damaged tissues throughout the body.

Stem cells for research come either from animals, embryos, or from adults. Embryonic stem cells are the most controversial. These stem cells are from the process of in vitro fertilization. Under this procedure many eggs are fertilized as candidates for implantation into a female host. Those that are not chosen for transplant are typically donated to research. Embryonic stem cells offer the greatest possibilities for the core of diseases such as Parkinson's Disease, Diabetes, Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury, Duchennes' muscular dystrophy, heart disease and certain types of vision and hearing loss (National Institutes of Health).

There are four types of stem cells: totipotent, pluripotent, multipotent, and adult stem cells. The point in cell division and embryonic development determine the type of stem cell. Totipotent stems cells are from the first cells formed in the first three cell divisions of the zygote. These cells will eventually differentiate and form every other type of cell needed for the human body (MedIndia). After five days of cell division, a blastocyst is formed. The blastocyst is divided into three layers. The outer layer forms the placenta, the inner layer consists of the pluripotent embryonic stem cells. This type of stem cell is more versatile than totipotent cells and can produce a large variety of cell types (MedIndia).

Multipotent cells are the result of continued cell differentiation and division. This type of stem cell is partially differentiated and is present in adult tissues (MedIndia). This type of stem cell is limited in the number of different cell types that can be formed. Adult stem cells are found in developed tissues (MedIndia). These types of cells can be isolated from the brain, bone marrow, blood, and in other organs of the body (MedIndia). These types of cells are already highly differentiated and cannot form an unrelated type of cell. These differentiated cells supply replacement cells for a certain type of tissue (MedIndia). They type of stem cell depends on the amount of differentiation that has occurred and in which step of the process the cell derives. These four basic classifications of stem cells are used for different purposes and different applications.

3.0 the Controversy

Stem cell research holds many possibilities for the future of man. No one will argue that this research holds the key to unlocking and curing many diseases and conditions that were once thought to be incurable. No one is arguing that research should be pursued that holds the possibility for the cure of deadly diseases. The controversy surrounding stem cells arises from use of embryonic stem cells. Thee cells are the most valuable in stem cell research because they are the most widely adaptable to a number of circumstances. However, harvesting them requires the destruction of a human embryo. This has been compared to opponents of stem cell research to committing abortion or murder, as it stops a potential human life (Kinsley).

The debate over the embryonic stem cell issue is a highly emotionally charged topic. Opponents of the research claim that this research crosses a more boundary where one life is exchanged for another (George and Berg). The topic of stem cell research revives the age-old debate over whether life begins at conception or at some point after the embryo becomes a fetus. Some opponents of stem cell research purport that the means cannot justify the end. They contend that even if the research does lead to cures for many dreaded diseases, it is still not justified by the end of another potential life (George and Berg).

However, if one is to takes this standpoint, then one could argue that in vitro fertilization is wrong because in the process a number of potential embryos are developed, a majority of which is destined for destruction or freezing, where they will never become human life. In order to alleviate this problem, researchers are now working on methods of harvesting cells that do not destroy the embryo at the blastocyst level (Cowan, Klimanskaya, and McMahon et al. 1353). Other techniques are being developed in an attempt to induce adult cells to revert to an undifferentiated state. Stem cells produced by this method are called induced pluripotent stem cells (Fox). Opponents of embryonic stem cell research are mixed regarding research regarding new harvesting techniques.

According to Michael Bellomo, fears regarding stem cell research are not what is happening now, but the possibilities of what could happen in the future (198). Critics of stem cell research, such as Bellomo rely on science fiction style conjectures and paint scenarios of worlds to come. However, the debate over stem cells is a highly public debate, and as such, it is likely that constraints will be placed on the progress and use of this technology. Fro instance, in David Novak's the Sanctity of…