October 10, 2012

Nobel Prize For “Ethical” Stem Cell Research

Stem cells could provide cures for diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s disease, brain damage and many other conditions.

Unfortunately, stem cell research has been hindered because of concerns about its morality.

For example, right-to-lifers have equated research on embryonic stem cells with murder, even when these cells come from eggs that were fertilized in vitro (outside the woman’s body) and were donated specifically for the purpose of research, and even though the majority of eggs that are fertilized within a woman’s body will fail to implant.

Not all stem cells come from embryos, though. There are embryonic stem cells and there are adult stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells, also known as pluripotent stem cells, are undifferentiated cells that have the potential of growing into any of many different types of organ tissues as an embryo develops.

Adult stem cells, or somatic stem cells, are found in different organs of the body.  They repair and replace tissue. It is believed that they can only grow into specific types of cells. For example, stem cells in bone marrow become red blood cells.

This year, the Noble Prize for Physiology and Medicine has just been awarded to Sir John B. Gurdon of Great Britain and Shinya Yamanaka of Japan for their work with stem cells.

They discovered how to reprogram adult cells so that they could behave like embryonic stem cells.

Adult cells that have been reprogrammed in this way are known as induced pluripotent stem cells (or iPSCs).

By working with iPSCs, researchers avoid the moral issues associated with embryonic stem cells that come from embryos.

In fact, the director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics has commended Yamanaka for taking “people’s ethical concerns seriously”, stating that Yamanaka should win a Nobel Prize for ethics.

While it is wonderful that there is an alternative to the use of embryonic stem cells, currently much research still needs to be done on both embryonic stem cells and IPSCs.

Is it ethical to give up on one line of research because of abstract arguments about when life begins when there are human beings who are currently suffering from terrible diseases and who stem cells might help?

I find it somewhat upsetting that when people discuss the morality of issues such as stem cells, cloning and abortion, talk often centers on the rights of zygotes and blastocysts –  rather than living  human beings.

Where is the morality behind letting a human being’s body or mind slowly waste away as they suffer in agony in order to protect the “rights” of a cell or a clump of cells?

I suffered a miscarriage during the sixth week of pregnancy; embryonic stem cells can be harvested up to only about the fifth day after conception.  Having seen what a six week old embryo looks like, I can say without a doubt that the idea that such a thing has more rights than a living, breathing, thinking human being – even a complete stranger on the other side of the world – is ludicrous.

I’ve also seen family members suffer from heart disease and crippling arthritis.

I find it interesting that the people who are most opposed to stem cell research also tend to be opposed to the guarantee of affordable health care.  So people who are suffering because they do not have access to stem cell treatments may not even be able to afford the less effective treatments that are available to them now.

Perhaps those who make decisions about our health should spend more time thinking about how human beings should be treated after they are born.

For more information on stem cells, see The National Institute of Health’s Stem Cell Information Page.

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