Stem Cell Research

Essay by brownjoeHigh School, 11th gradeA+, May 2006

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Who would give up their cars, especially those living in the suburbs? However, thousands of people mourn the tragedies that occur on the roads every year. How many individuals can go without all the time-saving unrecyclables they use every day? Yet no one wants landfills in his/her area. Patients commend technological innovations in healthcare for early diagnosis. But they get very concerned when hearing about some of the possible side effects from medical advances. People have trouble accepting that technology, like everything else, presents a tradeoff. As technological advances become increasingly complex, so do the tradeoffs involved. This is especially true when ethical considerations arise such as with the embryonic stem cell debate. The number of people who could benefit from stem cell development is infinite. Nevertheless many people, in particular those with moral and religious concerns, highly question the use of embryos and biological modifications. This is not a dilemma that will be quickly resolved, especially since no one knows all the future implications.

Therefore, even though many scientists and human rights activists believe stem cell research, especially embryonic, destroys human life; and that the future outcome is unknown, it must be continued to further medical progress.

Stem cells are similar cells that have the ability to divide and differentiate into other cell types. Stem cells have been discovered to have the ability to generate into any cell type. Embryonic stem cells are derived from the blastocyst stage of the embryo, which contains 200 to 250 cells. Adult stem cells are derived from the umbilical cord or form blood, bone marrow, skin and other tissues. Medical researchers are interested in using stem cells to repair or replace damaged body tissue because stem cells are less likely to be rejected by the body's immune system. This is because once adult stem cells progress further, patients will be able to use their own cells which are not rejected by the immune system. The first human stem cells to be isolated and cultured were extracted by American scientists in 1998. Human stem cells have typically been extracted from surplus fertilized embryos produced during in vitro fertilization procedures. However, some embryos used have been fertilized especially to produce stem cells, which brings up the issue of cloning. In 1994 a National Institutes of Health panel argued that creating embryos for the sole purpose of extracting stem cells was justified; but Congress subsequently enacted a ban on federal financing for research involving human embryos. A few years later, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled in 1999 that the ban did not apply to financing work with stem cells. In August 2001, President George W. Bush announced that he would support federal funding of research with embryonic stem cells, but only with the estimated sixty stem cell lines existing at the time ("Stem Cell Information"). Since then, scientists have found other means of attaining funds, such as private financing, to further research needed to discover new embryonic stem cell lines.

The research of stem cells, particularly involving embryos and embryonic stem cells, has created a widespread controversy and a major issue in political debates. This is because starting a stem cell line requires the destruction of an embryo and/or the use of therapeutic cloning. Opponents of the research argue that this practice is a slippery slope to reproductive and human cloning (Baltimore 204). Conversely, scientists believe that these techniques are necessary to pursue embryonic stem cell research. On the other hand, Robert George, a professor at Princeton University, believes harvesting stem cells is like harvesting organs from children or death-row prisoners (200). However, is harvesting stem cells really that extreme? Even though embryos are destroyed when creating new cell lines, sacrifices must made to achieve medical advances. Scientists are finding alternate techniques of obtaining embryonic stem cells by extraction, which does not destroy the embryo or involve cloning. Some scientists believe that because embryos are capable of developing and growing, they are human beings and should have the same rights as we do (George 200). Nevertheless, embryos are only "part" of the human species and are not really humans at all, only small masses of cells. Embryonic stem cell research is believed to be unnecessary, the benefits of the research are a long way off, and that adult stem cells are proving to be a viable alternative (George). Adult stem cells are multipotent, stem cells that can produce closely related cell types; while embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, allowing them to grow into any cell type and making them easier to use. And, with further funding and more support, embryonic stem cell therapies may become reality in only a few years.

The benefits of embryonic stem cell research far outweigh those of adult stem cells and the embryonic stem cells will lead to medical breakthroughs more quickly. The main benefit is to gain the ability to duplicate parts of your body, such as arms, legs, heart, spinal cord, etc. ("Stem Cell Information"). This would drastically change the world of medicine. Any time someone had to get a lung transplanted there would be no need to find a donor; and once the lung was transplanted, the patient would not have to receive drugs afterwards, because his immune system would automatically accept the lung. Also, organs that cannot possibly be donated and accepted in a new body, like spinal tissue, could be duplicated. This means if an individual was paralyzed, hers or his spinal tissue could be duplicated by stem cells and then transplanted. In addition, it may become possible, with embryonic stem cells, to generate healthy heart muscle cells in the laboratory and then transplant those cells into patients with chronic heart disease. Through the use of embryonic stem cells, brain cells and many other cells can be cultured and then transplanted into a patient to cure Alzheimer's disease and other brain and heart related diseases ("Stem Cell Information"). A person diagnosed with diabetes, a disease in which a person is unable to produce insulin, can have cells cultured to form insulin producing cells and have them transplanted. Because of the limited number of cells adult stem cells are able to produce; these diseases would be unable to be cured through their use. Stem cells could also be used to test new drugs. With this achievement scientists could be able to cure cancer and many other diseases. This would reduce the view of cancer as a fatal disease, to something that can be overcome, such as a common cold. Patients would no longer have to pay the enormous expenses for getting chemo therapy and other past treatments for cancer. Finally, embryonic stem cells could be used to develop new methods for genetic engineering. This would lead to the complete elimination of disease as we know it. Scientists would be able to genetically modify DNA so that genes that cause cancer and other diseases would no longer exist. This may also lead to longer living and healthier lives. Although, many opponents would believe that this might lead to a race of super humans, but this is unlikely. But, in the end, the outcome of stem cell research will significantly change the lives of countless people.

Society and the scientific community must realize the future of stem cell research. As stated by President George W. Bush:

As the discoveries of modern science create tremendous hope, they also lay vast ethical mine fields. As the genius of science extends the horizons of what we can do, we increasingly confront complex questions about what we should do. ("President Discusses").

People must look forward to what stem cell research can become and see the future of their children. Without the help of stem cell research, people will continue to die from cancer and other diseases that may be cured through stem cell research. When those who are opposed to stem cell research fully realize the advantages, the number of people who will be saved will become limitless.