Ethics of Stem Cell Research
Module: Stem Cells
The overwhelming objection to stem cell research is that it involves the destruction of an embryo or foetus.
For many, this constitutes destruction of a potential human, and conflicts with religious and moral views held in our society. For others, the potential for this research to provide treatments and possibly cures for debilitating illnesses that have no cure and significantly impact on our way of life overrides this concern.
Central to any argument on this is what actually constitutes the beginning of life for a human. Opinions on this vary from the moment of conception to a 14 day embryo and a living baby at birth. This issue is highly emotive, and it will always be necessary to consider all opinions and to balance the harm that might be done against the potential good this research may provide for those suffering from debilitating diseases.
In Australia, legislation states that no embryo may be created for the purpose of this research or to generate stem cell lines. The embryonic stem and germ cells are obtained from either donated embryos not required for an IVF procedure that would otherwise be destroyed, or from pregnancies that were terminated for medical or social reasons.
The other major ethical issue associated with stem cell research ties in with the combination of embryonic stem cell and cloning technologies, leading to generation of an embryo that is a genetic clone of the donor of the nucleus (see section on stem cells and cloning). What is critically different in this context is that an embryo is actually created for research or therapeutic purposes. This raises a wider range of objections, in that a potential life is created for a specific purpose.
Also of issue here is the purpose of this type of cloning, which would be done purely for the purpose of generating tissue for transplantation. The embryo generated could be allowed to continue development and could potentially lead to the birth of a new human if implanted into a willing mother. There are serious ethical and medical concerns associated with the use of somatic cell nuclear transfer technologies to reproduce humans and it is illegal in Australia, UK and the USA to conduct any research into reproductive cloning of humans.
The Prohibition of Human Cloning Act 2002 (Cth) prohibits all types of human cloning by any method. The Research Involving Human Embryos Act 2002 (Cth) allows for regulated use of an appropriate number of excess 'assisted reproductive technology' (ART) embryos in approved research programs. State and territory governments are introducing complementary legislation to provide nationally consistent prohibition and regulation of use of excess ART embryos in research.
Some people speculate that allowing any somatic cell nuclear transfer will be the start of a slippery slope into reproductive cloning.
Given these Concerns, which Stem Cell Research Should Be Permitted?
There are pluses and minuses associated with the research and use of all types of stem cells. Which ones should research focus on?
The ethical issues surrounding the origin of embryonic stem cells will always be of a sensitive nature. There are strict guidelines and legislation regarding any research involving embryos, but for many, research on adult stem cells is the only acceptable alternative.
Embryonic stem and germ cells can give rise to every cell type in the body. Adult stem cells, however, are multipotent, giving rise to a limited range of cell types. This may limit their use in cell-based therapies, and many researchers believe research using embryonic cells will be more fruitful. However, recent research has revealed that some adult stem cells may be able to generate different tissues under the right conditions and this may increase their therapeutic potential.
Embryonic stem (ES) cells have a greater capacity for self-renewal. ES cell lines will be useful for research into the effects of drugs and toxins, and also into early human development. Their uncontrolled growth also leads to the development of tumours called teratomas, which may restrict their use in cell-based therapies. Research is continuing into ways to control and regulate the growth of ES cells more effectively. Embryonic germ and adult stem cells do not form these tumours in culture, which may make them better alternatives for transplant tissue sources.
Obviously, there are pros and cons to the use of all three types of stem cells. Most scientists agree that it is important to continue to pursue research into embryonic stem and germ cells, and adult stem cells. All scientists are aware that they must undertake their work ethically and within the bounds of the law, and these can vary from country to country. In Australia, all research involving humans must be approved by Human Research Ethics Committees.
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