Worldwide approximately 10 million people are living with Parkinson’s disease, 50 million with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and 422 million with diabetes (Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Global Resources, Global Report On Diabetes, Understanding Parkinson’s). This year alone, 17.9 million people worldwide will die from cardiovascular diseases (New Initiative Launched To Tackle Cardiovascular Disease, The World’s Number One Killer). These numbers are startling and this is just the beginning. There are many other afflictions that dramatically impact the quality and longevity of people’s lives around the globe. Given the magnitude of this medical crisis, it is clear that researchers need to pursue every avenue to find both treatments and cures. One of the most promising—and controversial—areas of research involves human stem cells.
Stem cells are cells that are “blank” or unspecified, and under the right conditions, they can transform into the different tissues and organs in our bodies, potentially providing sources for transplantation, drug discovery, and repair/regeneration of damaged cells (Clark 24). There are two types of stem cells: human embryonic stem cells (hESC), which can transform into any of the tissues or organs in the body, and adult stem cells (ASC), which can transform into healthy cells only within the tissue or organ they have already grown specialized to (Stem Cell Research). At face value stem cells sound magnificent, regardless of which type they are, and one might question why there is any controversy at all—but there is much more to them than initially meets the eye.
Embryonic stem cells, as defined by their name, must be harvested from embryos in the earliest stage of cell division, with the embryo being destroyed in the process. These embryos, scientifically defined as blastocysts, are typically three to five days into development and are surplus from in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. The embryos are given to research with the consent of the donors after they are no longer needed for reproductive purposes because they would otherwise be disposed of by the IVF clinic. However, even though these embryos are already destined for disposal, their use in research has sparked a decades-long moral debate (Stem Cell Basics). To add to the complexity of the conversation, the significant differences between the developmental potential of embryonic and adult stem cells makes their comparison much more than just a moral discussion. The scientific conversation must be considered with at least equal, if not greater weight.
The common thread that seems to link opinions on the topic is that no one is adamantly opposed to adult stem cell research. These cells, known also as somatic stem cells, can be harvested from adults, children, by products of the birth process, and donated fetal tissue from miscarriages (Stem Cell Basics). Regardless of the source, no harm comes to the donor and, as a result, no controversy seems to exist. Proponents of ASC research sing its praises as being able to, “[…] harness the magnificent power of stem cells without ever destroying human embryos […]” (van Gend 129) and ASC therapies, like bone marrow transplants, have been used successfully for decades. However, ASC does have its limitations, in that blood stem cells have provided the only proven therapies. According to the University of Michigan, “The claim that adult stem cells have been used to cure more than 70 diseases has been widely discredited” (Five Things You Should Know About Stem Cell Research). Nonetheless, even Ted Peters, author and sitting member of the board of the Geron Corporation (a leading hESC research company), concedes that, “Certainly commitment to beneficence should include support of adult stem cell research” (293). This agreement between opposing factions lends a great deal of credibility to ASC research and corresponds well with the fact that it has historically received much greater funding” (Clark 27, 30).
However, the same common ground is not shared on the use of embryonic stem cells. The line is drawn much more sharply in the sand and this is where the heart of the moral controversy lies. Opponents of hESC research, like Dr. David van Gend, physician and Secretary of the World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life, hold in common their sharp criticism of the destruction of human embryos, as well as claims that there have been no human therapy successes achieved with hESC research. In his article, Keep Stem Cells Adult Only, van Gend asserts that hESC is “both useless and dangerous,” and “there is not, contrary to public illusion, a single therapy using embryonic stem cells […]” His writing includes graphic descriptions of the medical dangers of hESC research, like generating “[…] tumours of hair and teeth […]” as he sets the stage to present his position on the moral side of the argument. While van Gend acknowledges that the embryos are indeed already doomed to destruction, he does not concede that they should be used for any other purpose. He pleads to his audience’s sense of morality when he likens the practice of discarding the embryos to them being, “thawed out as expired meat,” and their donation to research as being, “reheated for science” (130). Van Gend’s use of these metaphors is vivid and almost disturbing; striking hard at any justification others may offer for the embryos’ scientific use. This type of opposition, and the legislation that has followed it, has slowed the progression of hESC research in comparison to ASC research, particularly in the United States (Clark 30).
However, hESC advocates like Ted Peters have worked to enlighten the public on the other side of the argument. In his article, The Stem Cell Controversy, Peters captures the audience with a logical and well-rounded argument that stands in sharp contrast to van Gend. He asks that people look at the controversy as a matter of “Beneficence vs. Nonmaleficence;” in other words, a matter of “doing good” versus “doing no harm” (293). He argues that, given that the fate of the embryos is already determined by the IVF clinics, the focus needs to shift to the possible benefit their use has for millions of people. In an interesting twist, Peters draws a comparison between the potential of hESC research and the Christian doctrine of salvation and healing. Peters uses this analogy to present the use of surplus embryos as a “ministry of healing,” as opposed to van Gend’s depiction of an act of barbarism (292). This perspective is unique and certainly as thought provoking as van Gend’s, while leading an audience in a completely different direction. The conversation comes back much closer to a centerline when Peters offers his support for adult stem cell research as well, giving balance and logic to his largely emotional appeal.
Balance—how do we pursue it in an argument with so many delicate variables? What ties van Gend and Peters together, in spite of their differing views, is that they both have a highly emotional platform, rooted in the moral questions surrounding embryonic stem cells. However, if we remove the emotion from the discussion and look strictly at the science, then the topic of stem cell research can be removed from the controversy of stem cell research and perhaps balance can be achieved more easily. Wayne Clark, writing for Countdown, the quarterly publication of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, summarizes the importance of both types of research as they relate to the pursuit of a cure for diabetes. Throughout his article, “Stem Cell Research: Pursuing All Potential,” Clark consistently ties together arguments from both hESC researchers and ASC researchers and details the common ground they share because of their common goal (24-30). Clark agrees with both van Gend and Peters on some level, but when the advantages and the pitfalls of both technologies are called out in a purely scientific context, it becomes clear that both adult and embryonic stem cell research need to be pursued. The technologies are not mutually exclusive and they both have their own benefits and risks that must be acknowledged independent of one another. There is clearly a great deal of cooperation already in place, as Dr. Bryon Peterson, Ph.D., an ASC researcher at the University of Florida, asserts, “I’m not willing to discount embryonic stem cell research. The embryonic stem cell people will be able to show the adult stem cell people how to use our cells in a clinically relevant fashion. It would be wrong for anyone to suggest that we should commit one way or the other at this point in time” (Clark, 27).
It is this cooperation that must be fostered in the interest of public health and wellbeing, as the healthcare crisis is reaching epic proportions. If the people who have dedicated their lives to researching one side of the technology or the other can come together for the greater good, then the public owes it to them to do the same. Ask anyone if their family has been touched in some way by cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or perhaps an autoimmune disorder, and the answer will likely be, “Yes.” If we ever want the answer to be “No,” then we must allow researchers the means and the ability to follow every promising path, without the hurdles of controversy slowing them down. Stem cell research, as a whole, could hold the keys to unlocking cures and treatments that would ease, or even end, the suffering of millions of people and their families. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to allow it to realize whatever potential it has.
“Cardiovascular Diseases (CVDs).” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 26 Sept. 2018, www.who.int/cardiovascular_diseases/en/.
Clark, Wayne L.. “Stem Cell Research: Pursuing All Potential.” Countdown, vol. 25, no. 4, Fall 2004, pp. 22–30. EBSCOhost, libdb.ppcc.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=15372494&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
“Dementia & Alzheimer’s Help | Global | Alzheimer’s Association.” Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s Association, 29 May 2014, www.alz.org/global/overview.asp.
“Diabetes Programme.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 13 Nov. 2018, www.who.int/diabetes/en/.
“Five Things You Should Know about Stem Cell Research.” Beta-Blockers for Mitral Valve Prolapse | Michigan Medicine, 13 Oct. 2008, www.uofmhealth.org/news/696things-to-know-about-stem-cell-research.
Peters, Ted. “The Stem Cell Controversy.” Dialog: A Journal of Theology, vol. 40, no. 4, Winter 2001, p. 290. EBSCOhost, libdb.ppcc.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=6637648&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
“Statistics.” Parkinson’s Foundation, 7 Aug. 2018, www.parkinson.org/Understanding-Parkinsons/Causes-and-Statistics/Statistics.
“Stem Cell Basics I-VII.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/1.htm.
“Stem Cell Research.” University of Michigan Stem Cell Research | Frequently Asked Questions, 2013, www.stemcellresearch.umich.edu/overview/faq.html#section1.
van Gend, David. “Keep Stem Cells Adult-Only.” Human Life Review, vol. 28, no. 1/2, Winter/Spring2002 2002, p. 129. EBSCOhost, libdb.ppcc.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=6949366&site=ehost-live&scope=site.