Embryonic Stem-Cell Research: Experts Debate Pros and Cons

Experts debate embryonic stem-cell research. What are the pros and cons? Is it necessary? Is it ethical?

The positions couldn’t be more polar. Some say it could save lives. Others say it kills them. And the embryonic stem-cell research debate shows no signs of dying down any time soon.

The Debate: Embryonic Stem-Cell Research

Opponents point out that research on adult stem cells has yielded more practical results so far—for example, bone marrow transplants. But proponents believe embryonic stem cells hold more promise. Besides, they say, research on adult stem cells has been going on longer than on embryonic ones.

In the end, whatever such cells may or may not be able to give us, the question comes down to:

Is embryonic stem-cell research ethical?

And that’s what we asked our experts to debate.

Pros Argument: Yes, embryonic stem-cell research is ethical.

Human embryonic stem-cell research is not only ethical, it is an essential field to pursue to make key advances in biomedical research to treat diseases effectively where there are currently no cures—including, but not limited to, paralysis from spinal cord injury, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and cancer.

Dan S. Kaufman, M.D., Ph.D., associate director, University of Minnesota Stem Cell Institute; associate professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Transplantation

The characterization of human embryonic stem cells in 1998 remains a landmark discovery. In the past 10 years, we have made tremendous progress to effectively produce many different cell types from human embryonic stem cells. Indeed, investigators will soon be able to pursue clinical trials using neurons, pancreatic cells, heart cells or other tissue produced from human embryonic stem cells to treat many diseases, such as those listed above.

Other nonembryonic stem-cell populations, such as blood stem cells found in the bone marrow, are routinely utilized to treat some types of blood cell cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. As a physician who does bone marrow transplantation, I know this application of blood stem cells can be lifesaving. However, these blood stem cells are limited to treating only a narrow range of diseases. We need to do more.

It is important to recognize that human embryonic stem cells all come from embryos created in excess by fertility clinics. All of these embryos will be destroyed if they are not donated by couples specifically to produce embryonic stem cells for biomedical research. The question then is, what is the most respectful way to treat these valuable embryos? Destroy them or provide researchers valuable insights that may one day develop lifesaving therapies and cures.

Exciting advances are being made in many aspects of stem-cell research using both embryonic and nonembryonic stem cells. It is now imperative that scientists pursue all promising areas of this field in order to get new stem-cell-based therapies to patients as soon as possible.

Cons Argument: No, embryonic stem-cell research is not ethical.

David Prentice, Ph.D., cell biologist; senior fellow for life sciences, Family Research Council (Christian lobbying organization and conservative think tank); founding member, Do No Harm: The Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics

Embryonic stem-cell research is not ethical because it relies on the destruction of young human life. The biological fact is that an early human embryo is an organism, a member of the human species; it is not just a collection of cells any more than an adult human is a collection of cells. Though an early human embryo does not look at that stage of life as he or she will later, further development is not a matter of adding parts by construction, but development is rather an unfolding of the genetic plan within its genome.

Newer technologies exist that allow creation of identical embryonic-type stem cells without the use of embryos, cloning or human eggs, bypassing any need for ethically questionable research with human embryos or risking the health of women.

Moreover, embryonic stem-cell research is also unethical from the standpoint that it wastes resources that could be more prudently spent on adult stem-cell research and real treatments for patients.

In the 27 years since the advent of embryonic stem-cell research in 1981, scientists have still not demonstrated the ability to control the cells and their attendant risk of tumor formation, inappropriate tissue growth and immune rejection, and the leading researchers continue to note that it will be decades at best before embryonic stem cells might possibly be used for patients.

In the meantime, hundreds of published references document the ability of adult stem cells from bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and even fat tissue in effectively alleviating symptoms of dozens of diseases.

If our intent is to help the patient first, wise use of resources demands that we focus on adult stem cells and making such treatments available to more patients.

Takeaway

There is no right answer. What is your position?

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