Stem Cell Research
What are stem cells?
Normally cells remain the same type of cell for their whole life. A skin cell remains as a skin cell, a nerve cell remains as a nerve cell until it dies.
Stem cells, however, are cells that can change into other types of cells. They are the trunk or the major branches from which other smaller branches (different cell types) develop.
What are stem cells used for?
Stem cells provide amazing potential for the cure of degenerative disease, in that they can be used for repairing damaged organs and body parts. Stem cells can be programmed to become the type of cell needed to cure a particular condition.
For example, in Parkinson’s Disease, stem cells could be programmed to become the dopamine neurons which are lacking. Stem cells could also be used to cure diseases such as diabetes and arthritis.
Where do stem cells come from?
There are two types of stem cells. Embryonic and Adult.
Embryonic stem cells:
- Are those obtained from human embryos in the early stages of their development. Since 2002, Australian scientists have been allowed to use stem cells from IVF – created embryos.
- Embryonic stem cells can also be obtained through “Therapeutic cloning”. This process, involves cloning an embryo, for the sake of extracting stem cells, genetically similar to the person requiring the treatment.
Obtaining stem cells from existing or cloned embryos poses serious ethical problems. This is because an embryo, is a human being from the moment of fertilization, and must be protected and treated as thus. Even though the embryo is small and does not necessarily look human; it is exactly what human people (including you and me) looked like in their earliest stage of development.
Even though this research could possibly bring about great benefits for the health of individuals, we need to remember that life itself is a higher ethical standard than health.
The first thing to distinguish is the fact that ethically we can experiment on human tissue, but we should not experiment on human beings. It is perfectly ethical to proceed with any and all type of stem cell research as long as this is human tissue, but it is completely unethical to do embryonic stem cell research, which of its very nature necessitates the killing of a living human embryo to obtain that stem cell.
To understand this we must first review early developmental biology. Human life begins at the union of sperm and ovum. During that first day, this is properly termed a "fertilized egg." However, this single-celled human body divides, divides, and divides again, so that nearing the end of the first week this embryo, now called a "blastocyst," numbers several hundred cells. To obtain an embryonic stem cell, the researcher must cut open this embryo, thereby killing him or her and extracting stem cells.
Adult stem cells
The other source of stem cells Adult stem cells have been used for about 30 years and exist in the brain, bone marrow, skin, fat and many other locations. It makes sense that Adult Stem Cells are doing so well, as mother nature made embryonic stem cells to proliferate and adult stem cells to replace and repair. The use of adult stem cells provide a scientifically sound and ethical alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells.
After the first day, a number of names apply to various developmental stages of the same living human, fertilized egg or zygote (a single cell), a blastocyst (many cells), embryo, foetus, infant, child, adolescent, etc. During the first week, this tiny new human floats freely down his or her mother's tube, dividing and sub-dividing as the journey is made. At about one week of life, he or she plants within the nutrient lining of the woman's uterus. In about three more days, having sent roots into the wall of the uterus, this new human sends a chemical hormonal message into the mother's blood stream and this stops her menstrual period. Four days later, the embryonic heart begins to beat and three weeks after that, brain waves are measurable.
At the first cell stage, you were everything you are today. You were already male or female. You were alive, not dead. You were certainly human as you had 46 human chromosomes (you were not a carrot or a rabbit); and most importantly, you were complete. For nothing has been added to the single cell whom you once were, from then until today, nothing except food and oxygen. You were all there then, and to terminate your life at any stage of that can be called nothing other than killing.
To say that these tiny humans will be "discarded" and not used and therefore should be "used" is a misleading argument. Why then don't we use the tissues of a criminal who has been legally executed? Why did we universally condemn the Nazi doctors who used Jewish subjects because they were going to be killed anyway? Why is it that we cannot cannibalize a person's body who was killed in an accident? It's because we have respected the human body, an absolute necessity in a civilized nation.
But are there other options? Certainly, there are. There have been marvellous and well-publicized advances over the last few years. We now have scientific data showing that stem cells can be obtained from fat. They can be obtained from cord blood. They can be obtained from neural tissue, from bone marrow, muscle, placental, and skin cells. We have reports of bone marrow stem cells being changed into liver cells. We have a report of skin cells being changed into heart cells. We have a report of cord blood promising to possibly create neural cells.
There is a possibility, perhaps a probability that adult stem cells may function more efficiently and more safely than embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are increasingly being shown to have a similar and perhaps an identical capacity to become cells of other types. They can be taken from the patient himself, then re-injected, eliminating the problem of immune rejection, which is a real problem in using tissues from another human, even from an embryonic human. There is no question but that there is probably an immense potential of use for stem cells. But this increasingly is being shown to not be exclusive for embryonic stem cells. In fact, adult stem cells may prove to be superior because they don't suffer the problem of rejection.
Finally, can embryonic stem cells be said positively to be able to cure diseases that stem cells from other ethical sources would be unable to? No one can make that statement. Let us by all means pursue aggressive research with stem cells but there are some bridges that we, in a civilized society, should not cross. We should not deliberately kill one living human to possibly benefit another. Use stem cells? Yes, but don't kill to get them.