With the L&H debate this week debating the ethics of stem cell research, Victoria Sewell looks at sme of the issues surrounding the subject
Stem cell research has been with us for a surprisingly long period of time, with the term “stem cells” itself dating back early 1900s research into types and differentiation of blood cells. The research into the restorative and regenerative properties of stem cells dates back to the 1960s, with research into bone marrow transplants and treatments. Nowadays, stem cell research is, along with gene therapy, considered to be at the cutting edge of medical research, with hundreds, if not thousands of potential applications being suggested and investigated.
To date; a young girl in Sweden was treated with a transplant aided by stem cells from her own body, deaf gerbils have had their hearing returned to them, and scientists have grown a functioning thyroid from embryonic stem cells. Researchers in Stanford University are looking at ways to specifically target cancer stem cells, which would provide less arduous alternatives to chemotherapy, and greatly decrease the risk of relapse. Add this to the much-heralded potential for treating issues such as spinal injuries and Parkinson’s disease, and it is easy to see why the scientific community and mainstream media at large get very excited about the topic.
However, there is a considerable amount of controversy surrounding the subject, particularly related to where the cells themselves originated from. There are three types of stem cells which are currently used in research: adult stem cells, amniotic (cord blood) stem cells, and embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells are taken from an adult donor, often to treat their own illness. They can be retrieved from the bone marrow extraction, fatty tissue, or blood donations. In many cases they may the most appropriate source of stem cells, as have the same DNA and can prevent rejection of new organs.
However, as these cells are already developed, their versatility is limited, and it may be difficult to use them in other situations. There is also a risk of degeneration related to age and other factors (i.e sun exposure over the course of your live causes degeneration in skin cells). Amniotic stem cells are retrieved from the umbilical cord at birth. These cells have a greater versatility as they came from the embryo, but collection does not involve harm to mother or child. Often amniotic stem cells from newborns are used to treat older siblings suffering serious illnesses. However, they are not an ideal source for research or widespread treatments, as they can only be collected after a child in conceived and born.
Finally, the most contentious source of stem cells is embryonic stem cells. These cells are taken from an embryo (or blastocyst, as it is referred to at this stage) that has developed for about five days. As the embryonic cells will eventually differentiate into every different type of cell in the body, they are the most versatile for use in treatments. Embryonic stem cells are, however, the area of most controversy in the field, as the harvesting of cells usually, but not always, involves the destruction of a human embryo.
The controversy rests around the right to life, and when life begins. For those who believe life begins at fertilisation, and that all embryos which have the potential to become human beings have the right to life, then embryonic stem cell research is inherently wrong. However, the argument centres on whether life does in fact begin when the embryo is implanted in the womb. The vast majority of fertilised eggs never make it to implantation, and do not result in viable pregnancies. Emergency contraception, which is legal in this country, can be taken up to three or five days (depending on the type) after fertilisation, and is effective up until implantation occurs. Similarly, during IVF the embryos are not implanted until after 3 days to ensure they are developing. The original Stem Cell research was done on unused IVF embryos, which would have otherwise been discarded or destroyed.
A recent poll by thejournal.ie showed that 63% of respondents approve of embryonic stem cell research, a figure which rose to 88% when including those who agree to it in certain circumstances. At present in Ireland, however, there is no legislation covering stem cell research, embryonic or otherwise, despite repeated calls from the scientific community. According to the Irish Stem Cell Foundation, this lack of legislation is damaging to both patients, putting them at risk of improperly tested treatments; and the science industry at large, by discouraging outside investment in that area. Indeed, given that scientific research and pharmaceuticals are among Ireland’s largest and most profitable industries, efforts should be made to not restrict development in these areas.
In reality, stem cell therapies are still very much in their infancies, with clinical trials being conducted as much to see if they are safe, practical, or even possible as much as to test the efficacy. As well as this, stem cell research has been very much overhyped in the media, with it heralded as a miracle cure, a panacea, with little regard given to the difficulties, the limitations and the drawbacks inherent not just in it, but in all medical research.
Simply put, even at their best, stem cell therapies will not help everyone, in every situation. There is not a cure for everything, as death and disease are inherent parts of life. What they can do however, is offer greater access to treatment for those who currently have no options, and help create more targeted treatments for others and this is something which should be welcomed, encouraged and praised.
The L&H will debate the motion “This House Would Support Stem Cell Research” on Wednesday November 14th at 7pm in the Fitzgerald Debating Chamber