Research Paper: Embryonic Stem Cell Research in Recent Years

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Embryonic Stem Cell Research

In recent years, embryonic stem cell research has become a hotly debated issue that is charged with emotion. Despite the enormous promise that this research holds for humankind, the emotional issues that are involved have tended to prevent a pragmatic, thoughtful and balanced analysis of the potential benefits that could be achieved with embryonic stem cell research. Moreover, there are a number of misconceptions concerning this research that make the debate even more problematic. To sort the fact from the fiction about embryonic stem cell research and to identify the current issues involved in its debate, this paper provides a review of the relevant and timely peer-reviewed literature concerning embryonic stem cell research, followed by a summary of research and important findings in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Perhaps no other area of medical research has garnered as much attention and resulted in such charged emotional rhetoric as embryonic stem cell research has in recent years. Despite the enormous potential that may be realized by embryonic stem cell research, the debate over the underlying science involved has seriously clouded the issue, making informed discussion difficult and even impossible. Indeed, Snead emphasizes that, "The moral, legal, and public policy dispute over embryonic stem cell research (and related matters, such as human cloning) is the most prominent issue in public bioethics of the past decade" (2009:867). The debate over embryonic research began in large part 1998 when researchers at the University of Wisconsin succeeded in extracting stem cells from a human embryo (Snead 2009). Not surprisingly, this scientific achievement and the subsequent research that has taken place around the world using embryonic stem cells have generated some diverse opinions concerning the moral implications that are involved. In this regard, Cogdell emphasizes that, "The use of embryonic stem cells is a highly publicized, politically charged topic, which implicates many ethical, legal, and moral issues" (2009:145). Because the potential benefits that may be realized remain largely speculative at present, these debates have primarily been focused on the moral implications of using human embryos for research purposes irrespective of the value of the potential outcomes that might be realized through their use. For example, Eve, Marty, McDermott, Klasko and Sanberg report that, "Stem cells are believed to be one of the greatest untapped resources currently available for the prevention and treatment of many diseases. Inasmuch as current knowledge of stem cells is a combination of scientific reality and cautious speculation, considerable research is required to identify the true, long-term potential for medical advances from these cells" (2008:167). Likewise, Snead points out that, "The primary question raised by the practice of embryonic stem cell research is whether it is morally defensible to disaggregate (and thus destroy) living human embryos in order to derive pluripotent [capable of differentiation] cells for purposes of basic research that may someday yield regenerative therapies" (2009:867). In reality, though, these arguments ignore the fact that embryonic stem cells are typically discarded anyway, and in this case, "one man's trash" is truly humankind's treasure.

Although scientists are actively engaged in identifying alternative sources for stem cells, the main source of stem cells continues to be human embryos that have been donated by people who used in vitro fertilization as an assisted reproductive technique but for whatever reason, no longer want or need them (Snead 2009). According to the editors of the journal, Commonweal, "Hundreds of thousands of embryos left over from infertility treatments exist, and nearly all of them will eventually be discarded. Some argue that using these embryos for scientific research that has the potential to develop cures for pathologies such as paralysis and Parkinson's disease is morally justified" (Life & Science 2009:5). Given these potential outcomes, it is little wonder that there has been a great deal of pressure on the federal government to approve funding for stem cell research in recent years. In response to these pressures, in 2009, President Barack Obama reversed the longstanding prohibition against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research in the United States (Life & Science 2009). There currently remains a lack of binding international standards for embryonic stem cell research, though, that has created an environment where reports from other countries are adding fuel to the emotional fires involved this line of research. For instance, according to Jhalani, "No binding international standards currently govern embryonic stem cell research" (2008:707). Although the United Nations passed a resolution in 1998 that banned all types of human cloning that are "incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life," the resolution was non-binding was subsequently disapproved by 34 countries (Jhalani 2008). This is an especially important point in the moral debate over embryonic stem cell research. According to Snead, "Theoretically, embryos for use in stem cell research could also be created by somatic cell nuclear transfer (that is, human cloning for biomedical research, or so-called 'therapeutic cloning'), though efforts to derive pluripotent cells from cloned human embryos have not yet succeeded" (2009:868). Emphasizing that President Obama's recent approval of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research did not address this issue specifically, the editors of Commonweal suggest that cloning human embryos to obtain stem cells is morally indefensible and may simply add to the charged emotional debate over this type of research. In this regard, the editors note that, "Of special concern is whether the new [National Institute of Health] guidelines will allow the creation of embryos solely for research purposes. They should not. Many people not opposed to using discarded embryos to cure illness balk at the idea that human life will now be created only to be used for spare parts" (Life & Science 2009:5). There are also some significant ethical issues involved in embryonic stem cell research that must be weighed against the potential benefits that may accrue to the use of stem cells. In this regard, Jhalani emphasizes that, "Embryonic stem cell research raises important questions about the use of human embryos in scientific research. On the one hand, embryonic stem cell research has the potential to cure diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and treat conditions like spinal cord injury, heart disease, and diabetes. On the other hand, the process of deriving stem cells from an embryo results in the embryo's destruction" (2008:708). The fundamental question that must be answered, then, involves the status of human embryos and what protections should be provided them, balanced against the potential benefits that can be achieved through their use in medical research (Jhalani 2008).

There have been some advances in recent years that may provide researchers with new sources of stem cells, though. For example, scientists succeeded in transforming human skin cells into stem cells in 2007 and a few months later, scientists extracted a single cell from an embryo that did not affect its further development (Jhalani 2008). Moreover, researcher are investigating whether other sources of stem cells can be found besides human embryos, including adult stem cells found in bone marrow and umbilical cord stem cells that may help overcome the moral debate concerning this type of research altogether (Eve et al. 2008). According to Cogdell, "Cord blood stem cells are extracted from the umbilical cord and exhibit many of the same therapeutic qualities as embryonic stem cells but present fewer ethical problems" (2009:145). In sharp contrast to embryonic stem cells, the moral debate over using stem cells obtained from umbilical cords appear to be groundless, or at least misplaced, since the vast majority of this potentially valuable material is simply discarded. In this regard, Cogdell emphasizes that, "Each year there are over four million live births in the United States. Each birth produces umbilical cord blood stem cells, which hospitals usually throw away. Rather than discarding the umbilical cord, the valuable resource of the cord blood should… [END OF PREVIEW]

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