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Stem cells: a miracle cure or playing God?

ByBriony Pickford

Feb 10, 2017

Stem cell use and research is considered by some as a morally ambiguous development for medical science.  The topic has recently been thrown into the eye of the public after Olympic Skier Chemmy Alcott decided that storing stem cells from the umbilical cord and placenta after giving birth was a worthwhile insurance plan for her potentially adrenaline-junkie baby.

In the UK, the storage of stem cells is advocated by the NHS Cord Blood Bank which asks women to donate blood from their umbilical cord and placenta after birth.  The blood stored can be used in stem cell transplants and therapies in the future. There is even a company called Cells 4 Life that enables people to store their stem cells for themselves for 25 years.  However, not every country supports stem cell research. In the European Union, five countries prohibit any research on the topic even though another seven are in full support. 

Stem cell research is thought by many doctors and medical researchers to be the cornerstone of regenerative medicine.  There are many studies into potential benefits and even cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.  However, some argue that research in this area has gone too far with regards to the use of stem cells in the reverse of aging.

Before entering the debate on moral uses of stem cells we must understand the fundamentals.  There are multiple types of stem cell.  Embryonic stem cells can develop into a vast array of cells whereas somatic stem cells (from adults) can only differentiate into a limited variety of cells. Both are capable of duplicating indefinitely.  Scientists have however managed to make pluripotent stem cells, meaning they have taken stem cells from adults and reversed them to make them behave like embryonic stem cells. These cells are capable of replicating almost any cell in the body, and thus making the harvesting of embryonic stem cells obsolete.  This development gives an alternative to the most debateable stem cell use, that of embryonic cells.

In 2011, the Court Justice of the European Union declared a ban on patents for research involving the destruction of human embryos, after the public became aware of the use of embryonic cells from  aborted foetuses in research concerning Parkinson’s disease.  According to Nature Science Journal, the scientists were using the dopamine (neurotransmitter) producing cells from either foetal brains or human stem cells to replace the lack of dopamine, the primary inhibitor of movement in Parkinson’s patients.  This was a breakthrough in Parkinson’s research, and although some think it should have been further developed, the use of embryonic cells is a tipping point for a number of stem cell research supporters.

Religious views on stem cell use are some of the prime inhibitors of research.  Buddhists appear to split their views the same way as the wider world; on the one hand they wish to discover new knowledge, but also do not want to do so by harming people.  According to the Conference of Catholic Bishops, there is support for ethically acceptable stem cell research.  Evidently, the idea of “ethical research” is subjective to the religion. The Southern Baptist convention is still of the opinion that it is unacceptable to destroy a human embryo for treatments as they view abortion as an act of murder, however some think that this view is ignorant of the facts of the research at the moment. It is well-known that many of the embryos used are from miscarriages, but perhaps a compromise could involve the use of those embryos.  However, in the eyes of some, that may still be considered acting as God.

This debate has not yet been settled and will not reach a conclusion for some time due to beliefs deeply rooted in religious faith.  Fortunately for researchers in this field, stem cells are considered ethically acceptable to be used.  The only real ban in regards to this research is on the use of embryonic cells as people will likely be debating, for years to come, the first moment one should be considered a person.

Image: PublicDomainPictures

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