In the debate that rages over the moral dilemmas created by using stem cells from human embryos in scientific research, there are several views, all passionately held. Who among us has not witnessed someone we know struggle with a serious illness, only to be frustrated by the lack of treatment options available. Whether it be a life threatening illness, like cancer, or Parkinson’s Disease, or a life altering diseases like arthritis or diabetes, the desire to eliminate the suffering that they cause, and to make available more and better treatment options is fierce.No one with an ounce of empathy or sympathy would wish this on another person. I, personally, knew a little girl, Rebecca, born with a genetic blood disorder called Fanconi Anemia, who waged a brave and valiant fight to survive this terrible disease. We watched her undergo numerous surgeries and treatments only to lose her battle just before her sixth birthday.
The family held onto whatever hope that was out there, submitting their child to the rigors of two bone marrow transplants that ultimately failed. I know that this family would have gone anywhere, spent their last dollar and tried whatever new treatment that became available. And for them the technology of stem cell therapy was just too new and not applicable yet, to Rebecca’s condition.But when the argument for stem cell research is taken out of the emotional climate of a family with a sick child, or parent, and looked at in the larger context of things, decisions become more difficult to make. The basic question of whether or not its right to use stem cells from human embryos in scientific research is heavy with controversy. On one hand, in the June1, 2001 issue of “Science”, Louis M. Guenin, who teaches ethics at Harvard Medical School, says that “for some embryonic stem cells, it is not only justifiable, but admirable.
“The stem cells he is referring to are those that come from embryos created through in vitro fertilization procedures, ended up not being used in the process, and were donated by the mother for research within certain restrictions. Guenin calls this group of embryos “epidosembryos”, after the Greek “epidosis”, a benefit fro the common good. The point of this distinction seems to be that once the woman decides not to use these embryos, they are then scheduled for destruction. At that point, “nothing can be gained for an epidosembryo by arranging that it perish as waste rather than perish in aid of others”, Guenin states.Herein lies the moral debate. Are these embryos “viable” human beings at this stage, or merely a clump of cells, not yet defined, that might be the life giving measure offered to the sick and suffering? The lines are not always drawn along “Right to Lifers” or “Pro-choice” people, either. There are those who subscribe to the promise of stem cell research, but feel it should be done using adult stem cells.
These folks seem to think that the potential of embryonic stem cells is exaggerated in a one sided way, while important moral questions and issues of research strategy are passed over in silence. They feel the promise is overstated, offering possible cures for cancer, AIDS, MS, Alzheimer’s and so on. Faced with such a prospect it is supposed to be “acceptable” to “overlook” a few moral problems.The case for adult stem cell research says that advocates of embryonic stem cell research promise a vision of the future that is a mirage of a coming medical wonderland. They demand that perfect candor rule in stem cell research. They feel that moral limits and consequences of research should be clearly stated up front, and backed up by law..
..all this to avoid the horrifying prospect of human cloning and all that brings.
The making of human-animal hybrids, the manipulation of germ lines, and the like, might well be the consequence of embryonic stem cell use.This, in my view, is an entirely logical way of thinking. The prospect of human cloning brings with it so many images of bad science fiction movies and horror films, but truth is often stranger than fiction. Those that advocate embryonic stem cells over adult ones say that after a cell reaches a certain point in maturity the way back to earlier stages of development is closed off. So that a stem cell’s capacity to perform is increasingly limited to specific functions, and it loses the capabilities it had in earlier developmental stages.But, Wolfgang Lillge, MD writes in Science & Technology Magazine, winter 2001-2002 21st Century, “According to latest reports, however, this dogma of developmental biology does not hold. Evidently, tissue-specific stem cells have the ability – as has been impressively demonstrated in experiments with animals – to “transdifferentiate” themselves when in a different environment – that is, to take on the cell functions of the new tissue.
Thus, neuronal stem cells of mice have transformed themselves into blood stem cells and produced blood cells. Indeed, there are indications of another capability of adult stem cells: Apparently they have the potential to be “reprogrammed”. Not only can they adjust to the specific conditions of new tissue environment, but they can even assume more generalized earlier levels of development, so that it even appears possible that they become totipotent again.”This is a very exciting prospect.
No one in their right mind would argue the necessity of studying new forms of treatment for the dreaded medical problems that face many. If one of those very promising treatment options regarding stem cell research could be advanced by using adult stem cells, thereby bypassing the objections surrounding embryonic stem cell research mentioned above, then the moral dilemma is taken right out of the argument.Only time will tell if this course of treatment, and the way in which it is secured, will be the “miracle” so many have been waiting for. There will always be unscrupulous people out there looking to make money and/or become famous, and personalities have and will always rule the research communities. But one can hope that out of all this promise comes a concrete set of treatments that will truly ease the suffering of humankind.
On that idea, we can all be together.