Should the use of Embryonic Stem Cells in Regenerative Medicine be justified?

Should the use of Embryonic Stem Cells in Regenerative Medicine be justified?

Undoubtedly, twenty-first century medicine has equipped the human body to respond to and defeat some of the most destructive and debilitating diseases. It is therefore a question of how this is the case, and whether science has sacrificed ethics in the process of accelerating the standard of medicine. An example of this is the application and use of Embryonic Stem Cells – an ethically challenging concept of current discussion, which features and assesses the relationship between religiosity, morality, and biotechnical progression.

Although considered an unbeatable solution to long-term disease, these cells inherit immense controversy that limits their potential in regeneration (medicine that develops methods to regrow, repair or replace damaged or diseased cells, organs, or tissues). By definition, an Embryonic Stem Cell is a cell derived and extracted from an embryo, in which is yet to go through differentiation – a process of growth - to become specialised. From this, such cells can be clinically cultured to “proliferate indefinitely”, potentially providing an unlimited supply of a specialised cell. This ability and behaviour is desired so that through manipulation, diseased tissue cells can be replaced. They withhold significance in replenishing or replacing damaged cells, as this allows for a return to critical optimum bodily functions. This means, ES Cells could potentially be responsible for the regrowth of nerves for those who have suffered spinal injuries, or replacements for ill-functioning cells in the pancreas that normally produce insulin, to ensure the natural regulation of blood glucose levels in the body. So, the extensive capabilities known to embryonic stem cells are what enable them to be classified as biological phenomena.

The cells are responsible for the development of an embryo, and therefore the beginnings of a foetus, meaning the use of an embryo (for medicinal purposes for example) results in the end to potential human life. Thus, the argument of immoral medical conduct is created. An immediate alternative to embryonic stem cells is the adult stem cell (also found in children!) – once again, undeniably impressive, however this time with no ethical dilemma. Rather, these cells present challenges in different ways: one being that the area in the body in which they are produced limits the cell type they can specialise into. Therefore, they are considered simply multipotent as opposed to pluripotent (holding the ability to produce any type of cell in the human body) like Embryonic Stem Cells. For example, adult stem cells found in the bone marrow, can only differentiate, and subsequently specialise into blood cells. Similarly, adult stem cells are found in the intestines, and hair follicles in the body, but too are limited to producing cells of the same origin.

The Religious Argument:

The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, has reputably defended the “sanctity and dignity of human life” and has historically defined human life to be a presence of soul. This means that due to a loss of life, the use of ES Cells is perceived to be exclusively immoral and is unyieldingly objected to by Catholics. This is because their views are fundamentally brought about from their interpretation of how and why humans develop. Alternatively, an atheist would argue that the impressive nature of ES Cells holds little significance in the grand scheme of things, as invaluable progression (or at least greater insight into a future with Embryonic Stem Cells) is dependent on further experimentation – the exact principle that is illicit and disapproved of by Catholics. Conversely, some other faiths dictate the beginning of human life to be at a later stage, and therefore may be less stringent towards ethical discussions concerning embryonic stem cell use. Views in Judaism consist of the belief that the beginning of human life begins 40 days after conception, and similarly for Muslims, who hold the view that between 40 and 120 days is when the soul enters the developing baby, and therefore when life has begun. This is significant because the different beliefs in the timing of when a developing embryo becomes a human, likely accounts for “different levels of acceptance for Embryonic Stem Cell research, which is supported in the Jewish community, is accepted in many Muslin countries, yet is opposed by the Roman catholic church and some protestant denominations”.

Reverend Cal Zastro protesting against stem cell research

The Alternative - Umbilical Cord Blood Stem Cells:

Circulating in the umbilical cord, blood connects the developing embryo or foetus with the placenta and is the channel by which oxygen and nutrition is transported to an embryo. After the birth of a child, the umbilical cord blood and/or their stem cells can be easily collected and banked for clinical applications. This is significant to scientists because as an alternative, this is deemed more accessible, with less ethical questioning. This means that less controversy surrounding their application, results in wide acceptance, and a more promising outlook. One example is CB-SC – designated cord blood-stem cells that could face stimulation to differentiate into functional insulin-producing cells, providing a solution for Type 1 diabetes. These stem cells have the generic yet impressive behaviours of most multipotent cells in their ability to differentiate and specialise into a myriad of cell types, although not all. For example, treatment of many different cancers, immune deficiencies, and genetic disorders. Again, this would enable the repairment of tissues by replacing ill-functioning cells. Umbilical cord blood stem cells remain significant because the placenta is normally thrown away along with the cord blood that is in it, after childbirth. Therefore, it is argued that the use of stem cells found here implies utilising what would be considered a waste product. However, although these cells are said to withhold vast potential, they merely hold the title of being multipotent, in comparison with embryonic stem cells which are more significantly totipotent in the initial stages post mitosis (cell division). This therefore diminishes the value of umbilical cord blood as their biotechnological potential is considered more limited in the scope of diseases that progress could be made upon.

In synthesis, the question of whether such a biological phenomenon can be utilised regardless of the vast ethical criticisms, remains a topic of debate as science progresses. It must be stated though that through acknowledging this potential advancement (and its controversy), humanity could have access to an omnipotent resource that is most beneficial to the preservation of life. Does the scientific argument outweigh religious principles enough to justify their use, or are less controversial alternatives the best way forward?