What if a scientist was able to perform a medical procedure inside a laboratory

What if a scientist was able to perform a medical procedure inside a laboratory, where a single microscopic cell could be transformed into a healthy functioning organ, executed completely outside of the human body? The idea may seem far-fetched or even silly, however, researchers have been striving for medical developments such as this for years by experimenting with human cells, specifically stem cells. For example, in 2001, Professor Christine Mummery and her team were able to successfully transform a human skin cell into a heart cell that could actually beat on its own. Now, years later, scientists continue to use stem cells to make big strides in the understanding and treatment of the world’s most harmful conditions. However, despite its medical benefits, stem cell research is a topic of intense moral debate, mostly due to how the cells are extracted for use. This paper will thoroughly discuss the definition and types of stem cells that exist, the use of stem cells, and why stem cell research can be considered ethical.
Before understanding the ethical issues surrounding stem cell research, one must first understand exactly what the cells are and how they can be used for medical advancement. In simple terms, stem cells are cells within the human body that have not yet been assigned a cellular purpose. For example, when a person is sick, the body will utilize white blood cells to protect itself against the infectious disease. In contrast, as stem cells have no specific role, they are unable to assist in any active bodily needs. However, these “blank” canvases are vital in regards to the creation and longevity of an organism’s lifespan on a cellular level. This is because stem cells are able to easily regenerate themselves through cellular division, often times more than once, creating a small population of available cells, which the body can transform into life supporting cell types such as the aforementioned white blood cell or a heart cell as the body needs them (MNT Editorial Team, 2017).
There are two major types of stem cells: Embryotic and Somatic Cells. Somatic cells, also known more commonly as adult cells, are specified and undifferentiated cells within the body, such as a brain or bone marrow cell. Adult cells, unlike a basic stem cell, are unable to alter themselves into any other cell type when regenerating. As a result, when an adult cell renews itself, the body uses the new cells as replacements for dying or damaged cells of the same cell type (i.e. Humans shedding and then replacing dead skin each day) (Center for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine, 2018). Consequently, majority of the research scientists and doctors perform with adult cells is geared towards regenerating enough cells to form tissues, and eventually organs, that could be used for organ transplant or repair. Unfortunately, however, once a cell has been removed from the body, its ability to divide and replicate itself is severely impacted, making it difficult for scientists to grow enough cells to form tissues in a lab.
On the contrary, Embryotic Cells are not specified, and like a basic stem cell, can be transformed and/or altered to become almost any living cell within the body (Junying Yu and James A. Thomson, 2016). This unique cellular quality makes them invaluable to medical research and improvements, however, the use of embryotic cells is easily one of the most controversial topics between political and religious groups and the scientific community; all due to how they are derived.
Embryotic cells are found in human embryos that are still in the very early stages of development, specifically the blastocyst stage, which typically occurs 5 days after fertilization. Contrary to belief, the cells are not derived from a pregnant woman. Instead, scientists fertilize an egg themselves through in vitro procedures. Unfortunately, he embryo is no longer viable after the cells have been removed, so it is discarded, hence the controversy over the use of these cells for research. Many groups who disagree with stem cell research using embryotic cells are “pro-life”. This means that they believe human life begins at conception. They view embryotic cell extraction as a form of abortion and a direct violation of the embryos rights, even if valuable scientific findings can be made. Furthermore, while scientists have had many breakthroughs, there have also been many unsubstantiated claims and failed attempts at using cell therapy to treat an illnesses. For example, in 2014, a paralyzed woman who had cells implanted in her spine in an attempt to reverse nerve damage, ended up growing a painful mass of nasal tissue in her back that had to be removed (Julianna Photopoulos, 2014). It is trials like these, that result in many feeling as though the initial loss of life is not worth the risk of a failed treatment. Another argument posed against stem cell research is how these cells can be used outside of medical improvements. Many worry that scientists will develop the ability to clone human beings from a simple cell, enlisting a host of other issues if the science is used inappropriately.
When asked about embryotic cells and stem cell research, Professor Christine Mummery said, “We call these pluripotent stem cells. Imagine if it became possible to grow these stem cells and influence their development. It would then be possible to repair damaged organs such as the heart or brain. It would be a gigantic breakthrough for medicine.” She, like many other medical professionals, are excited about the future and what they can uncover, learn, and develop using stem cells. Unlike many pro-life organizations and supporters, a vast amount of medical professionals view embryos as just a collection of cells, and as a result, do not typically face any moral dilemma. Instead, researchers like professor Mummery, see stem cell research as an invaluable way to gain knowledge and improve the treatment of diseases like Parkinson’s, Heart Disease, and even Type 1 Diabetes. An example of this feat is German scientist Bodo-Eckehard Strauer, who conducted a study on patients with chronic heart failure. At the end of the study, Strauer reported a 79% mortality reduction rate in his patients who received stem cell therapy versus those who received standard medical care for heart failure (Repair Stem Cells Institute LLC, 2018). In addition, scientists see stem cells as a potential solution to the high demand for organ donation. If a doctor was able to grow a new set of lungs or kidney in a Petri dish for a patient in need, it could have a significant impact on the amount of people waiting and dying from failing organs.
Luckily the debate over the moral and ethical standing of stem cell research could possibly come to an end in the future, as scientists continue to evolve and create news ways to test, study, and derive stem cells. In 2007, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka discovered that adult human skin cells could be extracted and reprogrammed into an Induced pluripotent cells, or IPs cells. These cells are very similar to embryotic cells in the sense that they can be transformed into specialized adult cells. This cell, if proven reliable, could completely replace the need for embryotic stem cell research, eliminating the destruction of human embryos.
In conclusion, even though stem cell research is a complex debate, one thing all parties agree on is that the research behind treating and even curing some of the world’s deadliest diseases is a priority we must never forget. Stem cells, specifically embryonic cells, are an excellent way to examine, study, improve, test, and possibly eradicate these conditions. However, the moral and ethical dilemma surrounding the research is one that should give us all pause; is the trade of a new human life equal to the possibility of a disease-free life for thousands of people currently suffering today?
While the objections presented by pro-life communities are all valid concerns, it has not yet been determined legally that an embryo is a living human being. Fortunately, the constant evolution of medicine leaves strong promise that embryonic cells may one day no longer be needed to perform scientific testing. Furthermore, as many embryonic cells are often received via donation from consenting adults or even unwanted eggs produced during in vitro fertilization for struggling couples, there are many scenarios where stem cell research can be considered morally acceptable and is incredibly valuable way for scientists to research and improve the current and future health of the human race.