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Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

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Published by Aki Honasoge

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Published by: Aki Honasoge on Jun 18, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Ethics of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Imagine a world in which everyone in need of a new organ received one within days. Thetransplants are not donated from another human or animal but are accepted without a single fear of immune rejection. A world in which burns and paralysis are merely minor inconveniences dealt with asinconspicuously as a cold. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes and blood disorders are permanentlyhealed with a single injection. And the loss of a limb is a temporary condition, laughed away asmeaninglessly as a paper cut (assuming we still use paper and not an iHologram in this utopian world).This is the storybook future of human embryonic stem cell research. And surprisingly, the promise of miraculous and almost mythological medical healing is beginning to be professed by even the mostskeptical scientists and experts. This possible future is what fuels the scientific passion and support forthis research. But this prediction overlooks a very serious conflict in the ethical community over thesacrifices made to pursue this research. The question surrounds the moral status of the embryo. Canwe as a society in good conscience destroy what can potentially be a seen as a human life, in order tobenefit the sick and suffering? This paper will explore this issue and show how the acceptance and useof embryonic stem cells is no more troubling than animal testing for medical purposes and that,although imperfect, it is a necessary and acceptable moral sacrifice we must make as a society until abetter alternative comes along.
Scientific Background and History
A large portion of the ethical issues currently debated in the public arises from an improperlynuanced understanding of the science behind embryonic stem cell research. The major movementstarted in the early 1980s, when scientists derived the first embryonic stem cell line from mouse tissue.This was heralded as a cornerstone event which would usher in a new era of scientific research andinnovation.
Then, almost 15 years later in 1998, James Thompson and his lab isolated the first human
embryonic stem cell lines. This finally brought the wondrous potential of stem cell research to the fieldof human treatment. In a remarkably short paper (3 pages), Thompson et. al. described the first processused to isolate 5 different human embryonic stem cell lines. The stem cells came from the excess frozenembryos from 5 out of 14 different cases at in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics. The embryos wereobtained from individuals after informed consent and approval by an institutional review board to giveaway their excess embryos to scientific research. These donors had sought IVF treatment to solve theirfertility problems which required the artificial production of embryos for later implantation. Eggs fromthe mother, oocytes, were artificially fertilized using sperm from the father.
Multiple copies of thesefertilized embryos were created because IVF often fails on the first few attempts.
The process of creating an embryonic stem cell line starts with preparations for IVF. Once anegg is fertilized, it is placed into a Petri dish with a certain growth fluid to provide the cells the propernutrients to grow. This cell is then allowed to grow and duplicate multiple times for about 5-7 days untilit reaches the blastocyst stage.
The blastocyst at this point is small, on average about 0.194mm indiameter.
To put this into perspective, a very common diameter of mechanical pencil lead is 0.7mm.This means that about 13 blastocysts could fit on the tip of a mechanical pencil. This is the point inwhich embryos are normally frozen and stored for potential IVF treatment. During a normal (non-IVF)pregnancy, the blastocyst would not yet have implanted in the uterine wall of the female, leaving a highlikelihood of miscarriage. In fact, around 50% of all pregnancies miscarry before implantation.
Researchers can now legally acquire the excess embryos from the IVF clinic and continue onwith the protocol to create an embryonic stem cell line.
In order to do this, the researcher must isolatethe inner cell mass, the grouping of cells that holds the true stem cell potential useful for research. Theyadd a series of solutions to the blastocyst in order to slowly peel off the outer layers of non-pluripotentcells, leaving behind an intact inner cell mass.
This is even smaller than a blastocyst on average about.075mm in diameter.
This translates to about 85 inner cell masses on the tip of that mechanical pencil.
This inner cell mass is then placed onto a bed of mouse embryonic fibroblast feeder cells which providenourishment to the cells while they continue to grow. Then after 1-2 weeks, the inner cell mass istransferred to a new plate and allowed to proliferate at will. The embryonic stem cell line is nowproduced.
Why Stem Cells?
Each individual cell in this cell line is now characterized as pluripotent. This categorization isdefined as a cell which can directly differentiate into any human tissue type. The outer cells lost whenpeeling away at the blastocyst are the cells that can directly differentiate into the placenta. But theimportant point is that each of these pluripotent cells can now potentially become any part of a humanbody. Every organ, every blood vessel, every cell in the body can be directly traced back to one of theseinner cell mass cells and potentially clinically produced from these cell lines.
Another point that makes an embryonic stem cell line so important is its immortality. Thismeans that no matter how much of or how often you grow these cells on a Petri dish, they will not reachan age limit. The reason for this is largely due to the high levels of telomerase activity in the stem cells.
 One of the main reasons that living organisms have an upper age limit and are prevented from beingimmortal is because with each mitotic division, each chromosome gets shorter. Eventually thisrepetitive shortening becomes a functional problem and the organism has reached its upper limit.Telomerase is an enzyme that counteracts this progressive shortening and compensates for it upon eachmitotic division. Humans lose telomerase expression eventually in life. But these embryonic stem cellshave consistent and sufficient expression of telomerase to ensure immortality.
Another advantage isthat the cells will not independently differentiate into any of the many cell types that they are capableof developing into without any external chemical stimulus. This all means that hundreds of years fromnow, scientists will still be able to use the same cells isolated by Thompson et. al. in 1998 and they willstill be the same, undifferentiated cells, with the same ability to become any tissue in the human body.

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