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Embryonic Stem Cell Research - Ethical Considerations. Dr Roland Chia

Embryonic Stem Cell Research - Ethical Considerations. Dr Roland Chia

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Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Ought We Do What We Can Do? from Asia Theological Journal (Trinity Theological Center)
Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Ought We Do What We Can Do? from Asia Theological Journal (Trinity Theological Center)

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Published by: Dave on Nov 04, 2011
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11/04/2011

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Embryonic
Stem
Cell Research:
Ought
We
Do
What We
Can
Do?
Dr
Roland
Chia
Inttoduction
'Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Ought we do what we can do?' Th~s
s
the question that
I
hope to answer in thls
talk.
The clinical potentials ofembryonic stem cell research have presented some with a kind of moralddemma. This dilemma is expressed succinctly by President GeorgeBush
in
a speech published by the New York Times on August
12
thlsyear, two days after he announced his decision regardmg federalfunding of stem cell research. Decision against embryonic stem cellresearch is a difficult one, according to the President, because it 'pitsgood against good'
-
namely that 'the promise of miracle cures is setagainst the protection
of
developing human life'. Many scientists,ethicists and philosophers, and members of the public share PresidentBush's dilemma. But this dilemma will evaporate when we come tounderstand that the advancement of science can never be thejustification for harming and destroying human life, not least that of thevulnerable and the non-consenting.The controversies surrounding embryonic stem cell research centreson the status of the embryo. The question may be simply put. Allscientists would recopse that the embryo is a human organism; it isdescribed as human life. But is the embryo a human being? If it is ahuman being, is it also a person? Embryonic stem cell research wouldindeed be tantamount to murder if it can be established that theembryo is a human person. But scientists generally tend to
think
of
it
merely as
a
human organism, albeit one with the potential ofdeveloping into a human being. Another issue associated withembryonic stem cell research is the question of the 'greater good'. Mostscientists would agree that stem cell research hold such great promisefor biomedicine. It
may
allow scientists
to
find
a
cure for such dreadfuldiseases like Alzheimer's, cancer, and even AIDS. Should one preventsuch potential good from being realised simply because of one's
 
Church
&
Society
Vol4
No.
3
hesitation to 'sacrifice' embryos, whch, in the case of those producedfor In Vitro Fertilisation, would be destroyed anyway?I shall attempt to examine these two issues pertaining to embryonicstem-cell research, and present a Christian response. But a caveatbefore I do so. By Christian response I am referring to the way inwhich one can, on the basis of the entire witness of Scripture andtradition, present a theological position regarding the status of theembryo, and the corresponding attitude that one must have towards it.
I
must say that mine is not the only position that has been forwardedby the Christian community. I would therefore invite you to examineclosely my arguments and judge their tenability for yourselves. Beforewe examine the theological arguments, let us take a brief look at thecurrent stage of stem cell research.
Current Stage
of
Stem Cell Research
Knowledge about stem cell science and its potential applications has ahistory of some thirty years. In the 1960s certain mouse cells whch hadthe capacity to develop multiple tissue types were discovered. This ledto the discovery, in 1971, of bona fide cells from mice. But it was onlyin November 1998 that scientists were able to do what had eludedthem for two decades, namely the isolation and culturing of humanembryonic stem cells. Scientists believe that these cells will allow themto find a way of treating a large variety of diseases for whlch there is notreatment presently. The potentials for embryonic stem cell research
will
be discussed
in
another section. The purpose of this presentsection is to report, albeit very briefly, the current status of stem-cellresearch.'Stem cells' is a term that describes precursor cells which has thepotential to dfferentiate to multiple ussue types. Embryonic stem cellsare the cells from whch 210 different hds of tissue in the humanbody originate. The most important distinctions among the stem cellshave to do with how 'plastic' they are, i.e., how 'many different pathsthey can follow and to what portion of a functioning organism they cancontribute'.
Totipotent
cells are cells that can give rise to a fullyfunctional organism as well as to every cell type of the body. Putdifferently, each totipotent cell can replicate and differentiate and
100
 
Embryonic Stem Cell Research
become one or more than one human being. Science has yet to unravelthis phenomenon. All the cells of an early embryo are totipotent untilaround the 16 cell stage. Before day 14, these inner cells can split intohalf, and each half can develop into an embryo, resulting in identicaltwins.
Plnnipotent
cells are more differentiated cells, and therefore areless plastic and more determined, with the ability of giving rise to only ahited number of tissues. These cells can develop into any of the threemajor tissue types: endoderm (interior gut
lining),
mesoderm (muscle,bone and blood) and ectoderm (the nervous system and epidermaltissues). Pluripotent cells can also develop into end organs, but becausethey are more specialised, they cannot develop into a human being. Thefinal category comprises tissue specific cells, hke the hematopoieticstem cells, which are committed to developing all types of blood cells.These cells are called
mult$otent
and have the capacity to differentiateinto only a few cell hes dfferent from their heage.Stem cells may be obtained from various sources.
Human emblyonicstem cells
are taken from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, whlch is avery early embryo. These cells are valuable scientifically because of theirability to replicate themselves indefinitely without undergoingsenescence (ageing and death). Put differently, they are 'immortal', thatis, they have the capacity for unlimited self-maintenance. ES cells couldalso differentiate into many cell types in tissues including blood cells,cardiac and skeletal muscle. The clinical potential of this will bediscussed in a later section. The isolation and growth of these cellswould allow scientists to obtain millions of these cells in a single tissueculture flask.
Hmnemblyonicgem ds
re collected from fetus tissue ata somewhat later stage of development. In November 1988, scientistssuccessfully isolated, cultured and characterised these cells from thegonadal ridge of human tissue obtained from abortuses. These cellswere capable of producing the three germ layers that make
all
theorgans in the body.
Hmnadult stem cells
are obtained from maturetissue. These give rise to a number of cell types and therefore are called
pluripotent
cells. The hitations and value of these adult stem cells areclearly explained in the AAS /ICS Report:Adult-derived stem cell therapies will complement, butcannot replace, therapies that may be eventuallyobtained from ES cells. They do have some advantages.
101

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