The central concept of stem cell research is the stem cell’s unique ability to reproduce for an indefinite amount of time and its ability to differentiate into any type of cell in the body, such as a muscle cell or a liver cell. This is unlike normal cells in the body, which can divide for only specific amounts of time and remain a single cell type, for example, a muscle cell remains a muscle cell and a liver cell remains a liver cell (Kumar 1-2). Although this concept sounds promising, the idea of applying embryonic stem cells in an attempt to cure major diseases has many flaws and there are many hurdles that science must overcome before embryonic stem cells could be of any use in medicine.
Scientists obtain embryonic stem cells by harvesting them from human embryos. The procedure after harvesting consists of cultivating the harvested stem cells in a laboratory, inducing them to divide, and later differentiating into the required cells. With the hopes of curing the patient’s afflictions, these newly grown cells would then be transplanted into the patient. With this approach come major problems such as the formation of tumours, which is caused by the distinguishing trait of stem cells. Because stem cells are able to divide for an unlimited amount of time, it has been found that the cells will not know when to stop dividing and they will continue to divide even after being transplanted into the patient (Herold 48). This form of treatment is counterproductive, as uncontrollable cell division will produce tumours and potentially cause cancer, which is one of the ailments that stem cell research promises to cure.
Another health problem that treatment with embryonic stem cells can cause is tissue rejection. As is the case with current organ transplantation procedures, embryonic stem cells are harvested from many people all who possess a unique set of genes; therefore, the stem cells are not genetically matched for each patient (Herold 48-49). The difference in genetics causes the body to reject the tissue and the immune system begins to attack the transplanted tissue like it would a virus or bacteria in an attempt to remove the perceived threat. To avoid the implanted tissues being rejected by the body, doctors must prescribe immune suppression drugs that must be taken for the remainder of the patient’s life, even with these drugs the tissue may still be rejected and will cease functioning (Bhimji).
A suggested solution to the problem of tissue rejection in embryonic stem cell transplant patients is therapeutic cloning. The procedure to therapeutically cloning a stem cell involves removing the nucleus of an embryonic stem cell, after this step the cell will no longer have any genetic information. Then the cell is fused with a non-embryonic cell from the patient. Afterwards, when the cells are induced to divide it produces a line of cells that are suitable for transplant. Since these cells have the same DNA as the patient there is no chance for rejection (Herold 49).
While this may be a solution to the problem of stem cell rejection, it causes a whole new range of problems and obstacles. As therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning only differ in the final use of the embryo it is a very real possibility that therapeutic cloning could be abused to produce reproductive cloning, which most experts agree should be avoided at all costs. To avoid reproductive cloning extremely strict rules would have to be established, and even then there would be no guarantee that therapeutic cloning would not be taken advantage of in other parts of the world (Antoniou 398).
Along with the risks that are associated with therapeutic cloning there is a large opportunity cost associated with it as well. Cloning is a very ineffective process that involves the use of, and the waste of many eggs. This makes the process of therapeutic cloning very time consuming, and costs of therapeutic cloning very high. Considering the risks and complications of embryonic stem cells these resources could be spent elsewhere on other more promising treatment areas (Antoniou 398).
A major problem with embryonic stem cell research concerns the ethics of using human embryos for stem cells and then discarding them afterwards. It is widely believed that it is immoral to kill a person even though it could save another person’s life (Cohen 59-64), but even so eighty-four percent of clinics discard embryos, and there are millions of embryos that are discarded in the United States (Herold 36). As it is stated in various laws in numerous countries, people are protected from being forced into dangerous scientific studies; this applies especially to vulnerable members of society. The definition of a vulnerable person is having no power, having inadequate intelligence, having inadequate education or having an inability to protect themselves. Using these criteria it is clear that vulnerable members of society will include children, pregnant women and fetuses, but it also should be obvious that it must include embryos as well. Because embryos are easy to obtain and are unable to consent they should be especially protected (Napier 497-499). This protection should assure that embryos are not used in stem cell research, which would consequently abolish the studies.
Supporters of embryonic stem cell research argue that the embryo cannot be considered a vulnerable person, or even a person at all; therefore, it should not benefit from protection and should be used in research. Embryos and fetuses are very similar, they only differ in one aspect; fetuses are attached to the uterus whereas embryos are not. Being attached to the uterus does not make the fetus more vulnerable; it can actually make the foetus less vulnerable than the embryo, and in more need of protection (Napier 502-506).
Excluding embryos in the classification of vulnerable human beings while including fetuses is illogical. Every embryo has the potential to become a human being, and many people believe that life starts with the embryo, or even sooner such as fertilization when the genetic code is established (Cohen 62). It is also logical to assume that people remain the same person all throughout their lives, and proceed directly from one stage to the other, never changing identity. Adults are the same person as when they were infants, and logically this can be expanded to say they are the same as when they were fetuses, and in the beginning as embryos. Using this logic it is clear that embryos are people and need protection.
In conclusion further research into uses of embryonic stem cells is a fruitless pursuit, in which the harm and problems caused to society will outweigh any benefits that it could have. The arguments for embryonic stem cell research contain distorted and unethical views, which John Wyatt from the Royal Free Hospital in London, England sums up in these few words, “The redefinition of human embryos as mere biological material, and ‘totipotent stem cells’ in order to allay public concerns, smacks of semantic trickery rather than responsible debate (Antoniou 397).”
Embryonic stem cell research poses a severe threat to the health of patients receiving these treatments, whether it is from tumours or tissue rejection. It also is a menace to society in general, by potentially introducing a means for reproductive cloning, or by discarding human embryos like they are worthless. The field medical research should be heading in a more favourable direction, one that focuses more on safe and ethical procedures to achieve its goals.
Antoniou, Michael. “Embryonic Stem Cell Research – the Case Against..” Nature medicine 7.4 (2001): 397. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.
Bhimji, Shabir. “Transplant rejection.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. 14 June 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.
Cohen, Cynthia B. Renewing the Stuff of Life. Oxford ;New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print. 26 Nov. 2011.
Condic, Maureen. “Unlikely Stem Cell Therapies.” Nature neuroscience 10.7 (2007): 803-. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.
Herold, Eve. Stem Cell Wars. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print. 26 Nov. 2011.
Kumar, Sachin, and N. P. Singh. “Stem Cells: A New Paradigm.” Indian Journal of Human Genetics 12.1 (2006): 4-10. Web. 12 Nov. 2011.
Napier, Stephen. “A Regulatory Argument Against Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” Journal of Medicine & Philosophy 34.5 (2009): 496-508. Web. 26 Nov. 2011.