The hurdles that currently inhibit embryonic stem cell research are irrational, illogical and a result of society’s indecisive ethics. Thousands of human embryos are killed every year, yet it is illegal for society to benefit from this phenomenon.
The possible medical uses that could arise from embryonic stem cell research are many. Michael J. Fox is a champion advocate for stem cell research in Parkinson’s disease. Similarly, the memory of Christopher Reeve seems to embody the effort for spinal cord regeneration, and the Reagan family has supported research in Alzheimer’s disease. Embryonic stem cells are the best medium to use by a long shot. We could learn more about how these diseases arise, how to prevent them and possibly how to cure them. In addition to the aforementioned neurological diseases, stem cell research has amazing potential to aid in the areas of cancer research and organ regeneration. It is likely that scientists will find many other novel and innovative uses along the way as well. But this will never happen unless we allow them to pursue these areas of study.
In biological research, there are several different mediums that can be used to conduct experiments. A bread-and-butter method of conducting research is the use of cell lines. Many different varieties of cell lines can be used and tested to yield important scientific data. For example, researchers at the UC Irvine College of Medicine frequently use cell lines derived from tumors to elucidate how abnormal expression of certain genes can attribute to developing cancer. Our understanding of the genetic basis for cancer has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 20 years. The use of cancer cell lines has been absolutely essential in that effort.
Although we are learning amazing things about the natural world, there are some areas of biology that remain quite mysterious. It is still not known exactly how certain tissues regenerate and how cells can divide asymmetrically to give rise to new tissues. Expanding these areas of study will undoubtedly yield progress in the areas of neurobiology, cancer biology, tissue and organ regeneration and a myriad of other areas. Conducting basic science such as this requires an appropriate medium, and embryonic stem cells are by far the best to use.
One of the biggest objections to stem cell research is the assertion that human life is destroyed in the process. Indeed, this assertion might be correct, but it is highly shortsighted. Embryonic stem cell lines are created by isolating the inner cell mass of an embryo (not a fetus) and growing them in culture dishes. From there, a tremendous multitude of research can be conducted. Currently, such a procedure is illegal in the United States. One of the problems with any cell line is that it will eventually go bad, and the current federally allotted stem cell lines are near the end of their lifespan.
We as a society already condone the destruction of thousands of embryos every year, just not in the name of science. Such is the result of in-vitro fertilization and fertility clinics. Not all embryos are implanted, and at the moment there are literally hundreds of thousands of human embryos forever suspended in liquid nitrogen. According to the Kaiser Health Network, this number is around 400,000 in the United States alone. Technically, they have not been killed. But they will never live, and the long-term effects of having fragile human embryos suspended in liquid nitrogen are not known. In other words, it might not be possible to revive them even if we wanted to.
Are they living? Are they children? Do they have souls? These are philosophical and ethical questions that are extremely important for our society to consider. However, in the case of current medical practice, these questions have already been sidestepped, or perhaps not given as much attention as they should be. Regardless, there already exists a tremendous amount of material with which to conduct research. Passing time will lead to their destruction whether or not we allow them to be used for research. The results from embryonic stem cell research could save millions of lives, and allow millions more to live without the burden of debilitating diseases that are currently incurable. These frozen embryos may never live, but if we allow ourselves to come to term with our own actions and our own morality, these embryos could help reduce a great deal of human suffering.
As a society that condones in-vitro fertilization, we are responsible for the thousands of embryos that will never live. Similarly, as a society that has the potential to save lives and alleviate human suffering, our inaction makes us at least somewhat responsible for their pain.
Ryon Graf is a third-year biological sciences major.