May 8, 2008

Stem Cell Controversy-A primer


Some of you might be familiar with controversy involving 'Stem cell research'. Human stem cells are derived from humans and have the capability to differentiate into different types of cells (such as blood and organs). There are two kinds of stem cells – human embryonic stem cells (hESC) and adult stem cells. The former ones are derived by destruction of an early stage embryo whereas the latter ones are derived from a tissue sample obtained from an adult. Both these types have generated controversy – the former due to the ethical and religious belief that it is wrong to destroy a human embryo, albeit with the permission of the parents, and the latter due to the fear of human cloning. The interplay between religion, ethics, legal issues, commercial interests and Government policies have made the stem cell research a very controversial topic recently.
In order to understand the controversy on stem cell research, it is important to acquire some knowledge on its fundamentals. Human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are derived from blastocyst, which is the inner mass of an early cell embryo. A few days after fertilization (typically 4 to 5 days), the embryos reach the blastocyst stage and at this time they consist of about 50-100 cells. These cells would be able to differentiate into about 220 different types of cells that are found in an adult body. Hence, they have excellent capacity for self-renewal, making them attractive in degenerative medicine and post-injury tissue replacement technique. The controversy arises from the fact that while extracting out the embryonic inner mass, the embryos get destroyed, and the religious groups consider it akin to ending a human life.
The proponents of life argue that destroying an embryo is against human dignity and that one life is sacrificed for the sake of another. There are ethical and religious protests on the use and destruction of human embryo for stem cell research. This has led to the ban for stem cell research in some Western countries and some of the states of the U.S.A. In most of the Western countries in which Christianity is the primary religion, the hESC research does not get Government funding. Private funded research is allowed in most cases. This arises an inconvenient question as to, if the hESC research is deemed unethical and anti-religious in the first place, why show vague double standards in allowing private funding while stopping Government funding, as opposed to totally ban such research.
Are these embryos equivalent to a ‘person’? Various religious groups consider different timeframes about when ensoulment takes place. Some have revised the timeframe (usually to an earlier time) after scientific discoveries started to reveal the exact chronological events of human embryonic growth. Pro-life activists argue that an embryo has to be considered as a human immediately after conception and bring ethical questions about destroying that embryo, on the similar line of argument that they use while opposing abortion.
We can classify the people of this planet into three broad categories – traditional Christians, post-Christians and followers of Eastern religions, the tolerance to and acceptance of stem cell research increasing from left to right. Whereas the first category resists the creation and destruction of human embryos because they consider an embryo to be a child, the last category doesn’t object and in fact supports stem cell research due to their religious beliefs that concern reincarnation and karma. Due to this divide, some scientists are heading east, and, if the scientists in the eastern countries succeed in curing some diseases or cloning the children via stem cell research, the desperate people will also head to such countries to avail the facilities.
A more elaborate look at the voices and concerns of people of different religion and beliefs shows that the opinion of the world is certainly divided in the issue of stem cell research. Several non-Catholic Christian groups don’t mind hESC research with the consent of the mother. The religious argument against hESC research would be much stronger if all religions agreed. The problem is difficult and emotions run high. Religions are attempting to reconcile the overlapping rights of three parties: the mother, an embryo and the patient. The answer is certainly not an easy one.
Though the scientific progress in this Government-funded area of research has been promising for the cure of aforementioned diseases, it has also received its share of resistance, mainly due to the fear that man should not play God and use the adult stem cells for human cloning. Though several U.S. states and Western countries have banned human cloning, some of the Eastern countries haven’t. And that again, along the lines of hESC research policy, divides the world. The use of human cloning as a cure for certain emotional matters, such as, loss of a child or donation of bone marrow for transplant, plus the deep inner urge by the scientists to solve the ultimate challenge of nature – creation of a human – all have caused a substantial private funding in human cloning research.
Rather than think that the humans try to outsmart God by entering into his realm of creation and destruction, the people should think that it is God who is gradually revealing the nuances of his powers to humans. Such a thought would drive away the ‘Man vs God’ argument and reinforce ‘Man aided by God’ faith. After all, one can argue that, if God wants to keep his utmost secrets to himself, why can he not hide it from the humans for ever? Such a philosophical/theological thought aside, the numerous medical advancements that the stem cell research promises must allow its opponents and Government to let the scientists do their job under the watchful eyes. After all, a life saved is a life created.

10 comments:

PPattian : புபட்டியன் said...

Great article. Learnt a lot. especially liked these lines

//Rather than think that the humans try to outsmart God by entering into his realm of creation and destruction, the people should think that it is God who is gradually revealing the nuances of his powers to humans//

polynag said...

As a researcher, I would agree for stem cell research and I believe we all should make the rest of the world understand the advantages of the same.

Ramya harish said...

hey i wrote a comment 2 days bac..donno y it dint appear...anyways..
A nice info to share.. jus before reading tis i got a mail abt abortion in the US wit sum tragic pics.. acc to survey thr r 4000 babies being aborted everyday it seems..
It took me sumtime to understand the basics of ur post.. thanks to wiki which had interesting pics relating to the topic.. i lost myself navigating thro the links.. vry interesting..
i donno..hv mixed feelings..donno to be for or against it... it feels like being non-vegetarian..

Raju said...

Ppattian, thanks.. I feel that the theologists are always looking for an opportunities for a reason to go against the scientists. SICK..
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Nagesh, well said.. At least we can try to spread the awareness among our friends who might otherwise have only a vague idea about the whole issue..
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Ramya, I am not for the 'luxuroius abortions'. I realized that I haven't mentioned one fact.. that is, a lot of embryos are kept 'frozen' after a successful in-vitro fertilization. The Bush administration doesnt mind them being 'destroyed' but is against their usage in stem cell research. All the scientists agree that, those embryos are more than sufficient for stem cell research for decades. So, it means that one doesn't need to make a fertilization to happen, or an embryo to be formed only for the sake of the research.

Ramya harish said...

hmmm.. ok.. understood.. quite reasonable..

Raju said...

Ramya, one more thing about the embryos created by IVF... Apart from the frozen-and-stored embryos after an IVF, some embryos are immediately destroyed if they are found to have 1 chromosome less or more than the desired number of 46. The stem cell researchers are pleading for the usage of those embryos, at least, because they have a technology to rectify the problem and make them to 23 pairs. The Government is not allowing that too. In fact, the US Congress has twice passed a bill, which was vetoed by Bush both the times. There is an understood consensus that whoever the next president, he or she will definitely lift the ban. I support Obama and I hope he acts sensibly in that.

Ramya harish said...

Oh.. thats interesting.. Hope it happens in the next administration.. yeah..Obama,being a lawyer shud support this..

Raju said...

Ramya, actually most of the recent presidential nominees/candidats are lawyers.. (including Bush), that too from Ivy league schools. Similar to TN politics where you can see so many B.A. B.L.'s, in US too most Congressmen have a law degree. I guess the preparation for politics starts right from there. It helps in the complicated affairs of the Capitol Hill including lobbying and law-making.

Ramya harish said...

ohhh.. hey thanks for tat info.. am vry vry weak in politics, rather not interested.. abt obama i read sumwhr..adha vechu dhan andha comment..

Raju said...

Ramya, u r welcome.. :)