The stem cell debate, one of the most controversial debate in the realm of medical science, has been raging on for more than a decade, with no resolution in sight. The ethical and scientific concerns raised in various quarters , pertaining to stem cell therapy still remain a bone of contention. With the incumbent President, BarackObama’s decision to remove the limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, this controversy will only intensify in the time to come.
What Is A Stem Cell?
At the heart of this raging controversy , is a stem cell which is known for its wondrous regenerative capabilities. Our body is made up of a host of different types of cells. Stem cells are unique as regards to their intrinsic capabilities to differentiate into different types of cells- heart cells, muscle cells, nerve cells etc. Consequently these cells have overarching application in the field of regenerative medicine, especially to repair and replace damaged and worn out tissues and organs of the body as well as in the therapy of several, baffling medical afflictions like Alzeihmer’s.
But therein lies a glitch. As stem cells mature their ability to differentiate into different cells , gets curtailed and they become more specialized. Consequently, at an advanced stage, the number of tissues a stem cell can differentiate into, becomes limited , thereby minimizing its wide range of therapeutic applications. This loss in their differentiating ability is the major cause of all debate, pertaining to stem cell research.
Types Of Stem Cells
Stem cells ae primarily f two types – embryonic stem cells and adult cells. Embryonic cells are harvested from a very young human of typically four to five days old. The extraction and harvesting of stem cells leads to the destruction of the embryo.
Adult stem cells are harvested from any adult tissue or organ. However, they are found in relatively lesser numbers and can only differentiate into cells and tissues from which they are extracted – which somewhat negates their potency. It has been found that adult stem cells grow less rapidly in laboratory cultures and in theory at least have less potential than embryonic stem cells in the field of regenerative therapy.
How Are Embryonic Stem Cells Derived – The root cause of the Debate.
The extraction of embryonic stem cells results in the destruction of the human embryos – a situation which has fueled this debate . The destruction of human embryos have been vociferously opposed by several eligious institutions and members of pro- life movement , who asserted that even though embryos represent human life at a very nascent stage, destroying them is tantamount to murder and in complete violation of the sanctity of life. From a religious standpoint , an embryo fomed by the fusion of gametes represent the earliest vestiges of human life and destroying them even for the benefit of others, is an unpardonable act.
The detractors also point to the fact that adult stem cells which ae harvested from the umbilical cord, provides a better alternative as they have consistently produced more promising results viz-a-viz, embryonic stem cells. So far embryonic stem cells have failed to ceate any therapies. Only adult stem cells are used in therapies albeit in a limited capacity. Those critical of embryonic cells, argue that in the long run that adult stem cell research will be most cost effective and yield more fruitful results.
However, proponents of embryonic stem contend that embryonic stem cells are inherently more potent than adult stem cells and are more effective in the domain of regenerative therapy. Since most of these are created during in vitro fertilization and aborted fetuses , those embryos donot really connote any form of human life whatsoever. Moreover maintenance of these embryos, well past their storage life is a massive cost burden. It is estimated in US only there are nearly 50,0000 of such embroyos lying idle, when instead they can be harvested for the greater benefit of mankind.
In 2006, researchers at Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Massachusetts, succeeded in obtaining stem cells from mouse embryos without destroying the embryos. If this technique and its reliability are improved, it would alleviate some of the ethical concerns related to embryonic stem cell research.
Another technique announced in 2007 may also defuse the longstanding debate and controversy. Research teams in the United States and Japan have developed a simple and cost effective method of reprogramming human skin cells to function much like embryonic stem cells by introducing artificial viruses. While extracting and cloning stem cells is complex and extremely expensive, the newly discovered method of reprogramming cells is much cheaper.
It is the anticipated medical benefits of stem cell research in finding cure for several chronic and baffling ailments like , The Parkinson’s Disease or debilitating spinal cord injuries, that have added urgency to this longstanding debate in the medical fraternity and political circles.
Whatever resolution arises out of this debate, the overall benefit of mankind must not be overlooked for the sake of few political brownie points or theological non conformity.