Stem cell research is one of the most controversial issues in the fields of medicine and religion. The controversy involves the ethics of the use, development, and destruction of human embryos for purposes of scientific research. In particular, it focuses on the use of embryonic stem cells in research. Stem cells refer to body cells that possess the potential to differentiate into specialized cells that perform specific functions. They are found in embryos and adult tissues. Pro-life conservationists and religious adherents have opposed stem cell research by claiming that it amounts to the destruction of human life because an embryo is considered a human being. Therefore, destroying it is destroying life, which is sacred. Stem cell research has numerous benefits that outweigh its downsides. Stem cell research should be encouraged because of its numerous benefits and uses in cell-based therapies, regenerative medicine, development and testing of new drugs, understanding of the disease process, and provision of relief for burn victims.
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Stem cells possess the potential to differentiate into specific cells that can be applied in the regeneration and repair of diseased tissues in the body (Singh, Kalsan, Kumar, Saini, & Chandra, 2015). Several diseases can be treated using regenerative medicine. These diseases include Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, spinal cord injury, stroke, type 1 diabetes, burns, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis (Burningham, Ollenberger, & Caulfield, 2013). Stem cells can also be grown to differentiate into new tissues that can be sued as transplants (Marks, Witten, & Califf, 2017). Currently, people who need transplants rely on organs from donors. The number of people in need of transplants is higher than the number of donors (Liao & Tse, 2013). Therefore, it is necessary to find a way to generate replacement cells that can be used to treat diseases in people awaiting transplants. As mentioned, stem cell research is important because it can induce differentiation of stem cells into replacement cells and tissues that can aid in lowering the morbidity and mortality of people with the aforementioned diseases and conditions (Burningham et al., 2013). For example, stem cell research can be used to generate healthy heart muscle cells and transplant them into patients with chronic heart disease (Liao & Tse, 2013). Regenerative medicine involves the generation of healthy cells for purposes of replacing disease cells in order to treat certain diseases (Singh et al., 2015).
Test New Drugs
Another reason why stem cell research should be encouraged is that it can be used to test the safety and effectiveness of new drugs. It is important to test the safety of new drugs before using them on people (Knoepfler, 2013). This can be accomplished using several ways, one of which is stem cells. Stem cells can be sued to test the quality and safety of newly developed drugs. For instance, a cancer cell line can be created from stem cells to test the safety of an anti-tumor drug. Due to the widespread application of stem cell research, the number of deaths caused by chronic illnesses and conditions such as cancer has been lowered significantly (Abdulazeez, 2015).
Several institutions and organizations have renewed their commitment to finding advanced remedies for curing cancer using stem cell research. For example, the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center is committed to conducting stem cell research in order to find long-term solutions to the problem of cancer. A new area of study is the exploration of the effectiveness of programming stem cells into tissue-specific cells for purposes of testing the safety of new drugs (Knoepfler, 2013). Accuracy in drug testing is achieved by programming cells so that they can acquire properties of the cells used in the drug testing process. An area that needs more research is the development of advanced methods to program cells into specific cells. For example, stem cells can be differentiated into nerve cells in order to test a new drug developed to treat a nerve disease. Testing reveals ways in which a new drug affects cells and whether it should be tested on human models or discarded (Knoepfler, 2013).
Relief for Burn Victims
Burn victims suffer both physical and emotional pain because of their wounds and the stigmatization that is caused by their unattractive skin. Pain also emanates from the slow healing process that does not restore the original texture, tone, and color of the skin. Stem cell research can be used to alleviate pain and suffering among burn victims (Knoepfler, 2013). Looking for donors is a tedious process that could increase the victim’s suffering. Alternatively, stem cells can be used to generate new and healthy tissues to replace damaged ones (Marks et al., 2017). The main advantage of stem cells is that a small piece of skin can be progressively regenerated to cover a large skin area (Knoepfler, 2013).
Increase Understanding of the Disease Process
Researchers can use stem cell research to understand how diseases occur. They can accomplish that goal by watching the differentiation of stem cells into mature cells in different body organs and tissues (Knoepfler, 2013). This can increase knowledge of how diseases and conditions occur. Science suggests that diseases such as cancer and certain deadly condition occur due to faulty differentiation of cells. Therefore, understanding the proper development process in healthy cells can help in identifying and correcting developmental errors before they progress to diseases and conditions that are difficult to treat (Abdulazeez, 2015). Studies of embryonic stem cells can offer insights into the process of human development. The main objective is to learn how undifferentiated cells differentiate into new cells and tissues. Science has shown that birth defects are caused by abnormalities in the processes of cell division and differentiation (King & Perrin, 2014). Understanding the genetic and molecular controls of cell division and differentiation is necessary for understanding how birth defects occur and developing new therapies.
Opponents of stem cell research argue that it is unethical because it leads to the destruction of human life. They believe that an embryo has moral status because it comprises a human life, and destroying it is sacrificing life for another. Lack of human characteristics does not exempt an embryo from being accorded the status of a human being. Opponents further argue that there are alternatives that could be used that do not involve the destruction of embryos. They suggest that scientists should use adult stem cells. Adult stem cells have been used to successfully develop therapies for diseases such as leukemia, lupus, and multiple sclerosis (Knoepfler, 2013). It is counterproductive to disregard the innumerable benefits of stem cell research on the basis of religious beliefs and faith.
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The foregoing argument is flawed because an embryo is incapable of surviving outside the womb. Therefore, they should not be considered human. They do not have a life but a potential for life. On the other hand, innumerable zygotes are lost after conception because they are not implanted (Okka, 2015). In that regard, more embryos are lost to chance than to stem cell research that has numerous medical benefits. In vitro fertilization generates embryos that are destroyed. Instead of destroying the embryos, they can be used in stem cell research and improve the quality of human life (King & Perrin, 2014). Adult stem cells have several weaknesses that make embryonic stem cells superior and more viable for use in research. For instance, they cannot be effective in the treatment of genetic disorders because of the presence of DNA abnormalities. Unlike adult cells that divide slowly, embryonic stem cells divide rapidly and can be used to offer urgent treatment (Okka, 2015). Moreover, embryonic cells have greater plasticity. Therefore, they can be used in the treatment of a wide range of diseases and conditions.
Stem cell research is a highly controversial issue that has been debated for many years especially in the medical and religious fields. Medical practitioners support it because of its invaluable roles in human development, drug testing, regenerative medicine, cell-based therapies, and the development of remedies for burn victims. On the other hand, religious adherents oppose it because they argue that it contradicts the precepts of religion that consider life sacred. They argue that an embryo has moral status and should as such be considered as a human being. Scientific research using adult and embryonic stem cells has led to numerous advancements and discoveries in the fields of medicine that have improved the quality of living. The pros of stem cell research outweigh its cons. Therefore, it should be encouraged.
Abdulazeez, S. S. (2015). Diabetes treatment: A rapid review of the current and future scope of stem cell research. Saudi Pharmaceutical Journal, 23(4), 333-340.
Burningham, S., Ollenberger, A., & Caulfield, T. (2013). Commercialization and stem cell research: A review of emerging issues. Stem Cells and Development, 1(22), 80-84.
King, N., & Perrin, J. (2014). Ethical issues in stem cell research and therapy. Stem Cell Research & Therapy, 5(85), 2-6.
Knoepfler, P. (2013). Stem cells: An insider’s guide. New York, NY: World Scientific.
Liao, S-Y., & Tse, H-F. (2013). Multipotent (adult) and pluripotent stem cells for heart regeneration: What are the pros and cons? Stem Cell Research Therapy, 4(6), 151-163.
Marks, P. W., Witten, C. M., & Califf, R. M. (2017). Clarifying stem-cell therapy’s benefits and risks. The New England Journal of Medicine 376, 1007-1009.
Okka, B. (2015). Ethical conflicts in stem cell research and education. Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences 176, 1071-1077.
Singh, V. K., Kalsan, M., Kumar, N., Saini, A., & Chandra, R. (2015). Induced pluripotent stem cells: Applications in regenerative medicine, disease modeling, and drug discovery. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, 3(2), 1-18.