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Mini Medical Dictionary

beta islet cells
Beta islet cells

Beta islet cells: (pancreas) Cells found in the pancreas. These cells produce the hormone insulin.  When islet cells fail or are destroyed, diabetes results.

human blastocyst
Human blastocyst

Blastocyst: A hollow structure in early embryonic development that contains a cluster of cells. This cluster is called the inner cell mass and is the beginning stages of an embryo.

Differentiated:  (when referring to biology) - Having biological specialization; adapted during development to a specific function or environment

mouse stem cells
Stem cells (mouse)

Stem cell:  A cell from which other types of cells (including other stem cells) can develop.

Adult stem cells come from adults and young adults.

Cord blood stem cells come from the placenta and umbilical cord; they are a source of adult stem cells

Embryonic stem cells come from a blastocyst, a cell structure from which an embryo develops.

Undifferentiated:  
(when referring to biology) -
Term used to describe cells or tissues that do not have specialized ("mature") structures or functions.


Notes

(1) National Institutes of Health, "Stem Cell Basics," July 19, 2004.

(2) National Institutes of Health, "Stem Cell Information, Executive Summary"

 

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Pros and cons of embryonic stem cell research:
arguments in favor vs. arguments against   
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Mini Site Index
Some of the arguments for embryonic stem cell research
Some of the arguments against embryonic stem cell research

Why me? WHy did I have to get diabetes?  Robert Messinger    Why Me?  Why Did I Have to Get Diabetes?  Lawrence A. Silverman, MD, Goryeb Children's Hospital, Atlantic Health System writes: "Child's eye view of diabetes. Issues that parents, professionals don't always see and hear are addressed. "

Arguments for embryonic stem cell research

  • Stem cell transplants already save lives everyday.  Between 100 and 150 million people in the United States suffer from diseases who could also benefit from potentially treatment with stem-cell-derived therapies.(1)
     
  • Bone marrow transplants transfer tens of thousands of cells of many different kinds to a patient, most critically this procedures transfers hematopoietic (adult blood) stem cells.  Hematopoietic stem cell transplants routinely save the lives of people with diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma, and immune deficiencies.(1)
     
  • Embryos created at the request, and financial and emotional costs of couples attempting to conceive should have full rights to decide what to do with unused embryos -- even permit them to be used to stem cell harvesting and research.  The idea of having their "baby" defrosted on a lab surface to die, rather than contribute to the "good of mankind" has been a spoken issue for parents whose embryos fate was decided for them.
     
  • Without private business and investors willing to take risks, we would have fewer medications, treatments, and technology than we have available to us today.  There would be less competition to find better and more affordable ways to manage disease.  To demonize the privatization of stem cell research is unfounded:  even government and "not-for-profit" science still must generate success in order to receive continued funding and recognition.  The notion that simply because a business seeks to make a profit makes it incapable of ethical practices and abiding by government regulations is like saying just because you work for a paycheck -- for personal profit -- that you will not be a good employee.  Money is not evil, and not all those skilled in business lack morals and ethics.  Look at Bill and Melinda Gates, Lee Iococa, or many of the other successful businesses that give back generously.
     
  • The stage at which human embryos are harvested (the blastocyst stage) occurs about 5-7 days after conception.  At this point in development, the blastocyst consists only of a mass of cells and a personal identity as not yet been decided.  From a biological point of view, this is still a stage of human cells, not of a human.  Cells are the building blocks that differentiate (specialize) to form organs, tissues and systems.  These things are what make up a human.  Cells that have not even formed into organs are tissues are pre-human, at best.
     
  • The Catholic Church states that life begins at conception.  They also state that life is chosen by God and therefore prohibit the use of any birth control -- even the rhythm method.  They teach that the use of birth control keeps a person from being born.  Do we then need to address the rights of eggs or sperm being denied a chance at life when a couple decides to use birth control?
     
  • The Catholic Church also (currently) forbids the use of condoms -- even between married couples when one partner may be HIV infected.  Not all religious decisions intended to "save" lives do just that.  Some "moral" proclamations, like forbidding condoms, actually result in the loss of life.
     
  • If it is true that life begins at conception, then it is only fair to completely abolish in vitro fertilization because embryos are created knowing that most will never survive and those unused will either be frozen or thrown away.  If using am embryo for research is "killing" then why is it not killing to discard embryos, or implant 2 or 3 at a time in hope that even 1 will survive?
     
  • Cord blood, and adult stem cells are older cells.  They grow more slowly than do embryonic stem cells, and are harder to isolate.  While embryonic cells have almost unlimited potential to differentiate, adult stem cells do not, and not all adult stem cells have yet been isolated for all tissues of the body.
     
  • Adult stem cells are often only present in very small quantities.  Embryonic stem cells are more plentiful, easier to identify, isolate, purify, and are not only more plastic (easier to manipulate) that are also easier to grow.
     
  • In order to use adult stem cells, they must be isolated and grown in sufficient quantity for treatment.  Adult stem cells are fewer, reproduce slower, and it is therefore more difficult to grow the quantity needed -- more difficult and more costly.  For persons suffering from acute disorders, stem cell therapy from a patient's own adult stem cells might not be able to be generated quickly enough to help the patient.
     
  • Adult stem cells are not the best choice for treating diseases that are genetically based:  the adult stem cells would probably also contain the same genetic defect and therefore, could not be used for treatment.
     
  • Adult stem cells also have more DNA structural abnormalities.  Daily living can cause DNA changes that would result in less certain "quality" of stem cells.  Even exposure to sunlight, toxins in food and the environment can damage DNA.  As a person ages, there are also naturally occurring changes (errors) in DNA replication as part of the aging process.
     
  • Using embryos may not always be necessary, but may prove a more expedient way to find appropriate and alternative approaches using adult stem cells.  Already, several scientists have developed new harvesting and stem cell technologies that do not require destruction of an embryonic cell.
     
  • The NIH defines stem cell lines as: "Stem cells which have been cultured under in vitro conditions that allow proliferation without differentiation for months to years."  There are currently many adult stem cell lines (e.g., hematopoietic stem cells) and there are presently 78 embryonic stem cell lines) from IVF embryos around the world. But scientists want more embryonic stem cell lines because the existing ones cannot be used in people.  Many are not good quality, and because they are grown on mouse tissue they might transmit animal viruses.
     
  • The class of stem cells called pluripotent, meaning the cells have the potential to develop into almost all of the more than 200 different known cell types. Stem cells with this unique property come from embryos and fetal tissue.  Stem cells in adult tissues do not appear to have the same capacity to differentiate as do embryonic stem cells or embryonic germ cells.  When undifferentiated embryonic stem cells are injected into mice, benign tumors form.  For this reason, scientists do not anticipate that undifferentiated embryonic stem cells will be used for transplants or other therapeutic applications.(2)


Arguments against stem cell research

  • The first tenet of ethics asks us to consider this responsibility:  to do what is right and shun what is wrong.  Although what is "right" and what is "wrong" is subjective, there are many that feel strongly that to take a life, any life, even that of an embryo, is inherently wrong.  And even those in favor of embryonic stem cell harvesting, may offer the argument that the end justifies the means.  Those that use this argument, are in essence, agreeing that the killing of embryos takes place.  They simply place a higher value of life on those already born, than for those unborn.  Who are we to decide whose life is more important?
     
  • The deliberate destruction of human life cannot be justified even with the goal of saving another life.  Who speaks for the embryo?  It is different to offer up one's own life from being offered for sacrificed without a say.  Harvesting stem cells from embryos results in death of the embryo -- a life is sacrificed without a choice.
     
  • To say that an embryo in the blastocyst stage, a point in development where neither a human identity nor capacity to feel or think is yet present diminishes the value of life.  In less than nine months, any embryo has the potential to grow into an organism that will have emotions, thoughts, feelings, and needs.  In fact, this ability occurs months before actually being born.
     
  • To say that simply because a person lacks self-awareness, or the ability to feel or process feelings is invalid.  Persons who are comatose also lack these abilities but we don't kill them.  There are forms of mental illness and personality disorders that make it impossible for a person to experience normal awareness, emotion or feeling.  We do not execute people simply because that lack, or lost, an ability to partake in daily life activities with personal meaning or awareness.
     
  • Frozen embryos will eventually die (or be discarded, resulting in death).  This does not warrant an excuse to kill them prematurely. Everyone dies eventually, but in the United States it is still illegal to assist a person in suicide (premeditated, premature death). Even those incarcerated for life are entitled to the natural course of death.
     
  • Funding is limited when it comes to research.  So far, the use of embryonic stem cells is expensive, difficult, and controversial. Funding for research should be funneled into adult stem cell research which has already produced encouraging breakthroughs and would result in the ability to help others without killing embryos.
     
  • Adult stem cell research has already been shown to have potential.  If adult stem cells can be used, it would negate the need to create embryos for the purpose of research or treatment.  Using adult stem cells eliminates the potential "market" nightmare of persons that would by or sell eggs to create embryos.  A black market already exists for selling body organs.  What is to stop a black market developing for selling embryos as well?
     
  • As the U.S. government severely limits funding and restrictions on human cloning and stem cell research.  Already, many of the cell lines available for research currently belong to private companies.  A major hallmark of any business is to be profitable.  Private industry may put profit ahead of principle and public opinion and vote will have minimal impact on the privatization of stem cell research ethics.
     
  • There are many in the scientific community that believe the potential benefits of embryonic stem cells are still a long way off in the future.  Should we continue to invest time, money and human suffering in an avenue that may not even prove to be the best or only way to find new treatments for devastating disease?
     
  • The destruction of human embryos for research is morally repugnant to many individuals, human rights advocates, as well as to influential religious groups including the Catholic Church and Christian fundamentalists.  These voices, when united, may have the power to limit, or halt certain research.  So does it make sense to invest in something that may not be able to stand up to public opinion?
     
  • Unused or unwanted embryos left over from couples who underwent in vitro fertilization does not make an embryo less human, or less entitled to rights.  If only humans who are "wanted' had rights, where does that leave children placed for adoption, the homeless in society, the institutionalized, or those "stashed" in nursing home facilities?  Even those incarcerated have certain rights.
     
  • Immune rejection, when the body detects and rejects what it perceives as "foreign" invaders is a potential problem when using embryonic stem cells because the cells.  Using adult stem cells from the same person in need of treatment (using one's own stem cells) would eliminate the need for anti-rejection drugs which can have serious side effects.
     
  • The Nuremberg Code specifically states that "voluntary consent is absolutely essential" in medical research.  It strictly prohibits experimentation that causes injury, disability or a person's death.  Any practice that results in injury or death to a human embryo violates this code.
     
  • There are plenty of people willing, and actively "adopting" unwanted embryos.  By placing embryos for adoption we offer children a chance to be born and more couples to become parents.
     
  • Once we open "Pandora's Box" what is to stop science from taking embryos and growing them into babies to be harvested for organs, tissues, or simply for research purposes?  If supporters of stem cell research do not believe life begins until late-pregnancy or birth, and that until a baby is born has no rights, there may be other moral lines too easily crossed.

   

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Page Updated 05/07/2006