A Brave New World for Adult Stem Cells
Imagine a world where Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease were a distant memory. These diseases, and countless others, are at the center of scientific and medical research simply because mankind has yet to find a cure. However, what if this elusive cure was already within our bodies? Stem cells exist as the human body’s master cells—they are unspecialized or undifferentiated cells that are characteristically of the same lineage. These cells are significant to biomedical research because of their noteworthy capacity to retain the ability to divide throughout life; they give rise to cells that can become highly specialized and take the place of cells that die or that are lost. Recent research has found that stem cells may scientifically and medically have the potential to be used for organ and tissue regeneration, cardiovascular disease treatment, cell deficiency therapy, and brain disease treatment in the future (1). These cells may be the key to treating life-debilitating diseases and creating a healthier future, yet social, religious, and political controversies have sparked heated ethical debates and have shrouded the use and research of these cells since their discovery in 1981.
Stem cells originate from two main sources: Embryonic stem cells, which are found in embryos formed during the blastocyst phase of embryological development and Adult stem cells, which are found in adult tissue. Most news and significant research has revolved singularly around embryonic stem cells because of their potency and unlimited ability to differentiate when compared to adult stem cells. Intense ethical debate revolves around these embryonic cells because of the method used to cultivate them and the overarching question that has confronted the nation frequently in discussions about abortions, which is, “When does life begin?” Law professor and Biomedical ethics expert Rebecca Dresser states, “Most of the ethics debate focuses on the morality of destroying human embryos for the benefit of others. This is an important issue, but stem cell research raises other important ethical issues — issues that have received relatively little attention in the public arena. After more than a decade of narrowly focused analysis, it is time to expand the discussion” (2). It’s time to take a serious look at the ethical issues we face today in this biomedical field. Guidelines need to be drawn as to what will be acceptable. Simply waiting nervously in the gray area we find ourselves today does nothing but hurt those who could be helped. Of course these decisions should not be rushed, for stem cell research does in fact concern human life; however, the knowledge we are gaining shows us that further research is needed from a scientific and ethical standpoint.
Stem cell research, specifically concerning embryonic stem cells, unfairly finds a brick wall at every turn, and, therefore, scientific progress has been stunted. This lack of research and inability to move in any direction does nothing but hurt humanity. Research like this is incredibly necessary if man is to better himself as a species and eliminate unnecessary suffering. However, what if the destruction of a human embryo was rendered unnecessary?
Recent discovery and scientific research indicates this may very well be a reality in the near future because of “pluripotent” adult stem cells. Similarly to embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells can divide or self-renew indefinitely, which enables them to generate a variety of cell types from the original organ; moreover, these cells even have the potential to regenerate the entire original organ. Up to this point, it has generally been believed that adult stem cells are limited specifically in their capacity to differentiate based on their tissue of origin. However, there is recent evidence in plasticity to suggest that these adult cells can in fact differentiate to become other cell types.
The National Institute of Health states that human embryonic stems cells were thought to have a much greater developmental potential than adult stem cells because these embryonic cells are “pluripotent,” which means they are “able to give rise to cells found in all tissues of the embryo except for germ cells” rather than being simply multipotent, which means restricted to particular subpopulations of cell types (4). Previously, adult stem cells were thought to be merely multipotent; however, “a newer type of reprogrammed adult cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, has proven to be pluripotent” (4). The existence of pluripotent adult stem cells has led to a deeper awareness of adult stem cell plasticity and the realization that not all adult stem cells are lineage restricted. As stated in the British Medical Journal, “It is now believed that these cells are able to give rise to other cell types in a new location, not normally present in their organ of origin, in addition to their usual progeny in their organ of residence” (3).
The use of adult stem cells instead of embryonic removes a significant portion of the ethical concern that permeates the questioning and handling of embryonic life. From this, it appears the use of adult stem cells solves all moral and bioethical debates; however, this is not yet the case. Stem cell research, whether it be embryonic or adult, raises a variety of general questions about the appropriate allocation of government and private resources in biomedicine. One of these questions concerns subject priority in biomedical research. Others concern the relative priority of research versus health care in funding decisions.
Great advancements have certainly been made in the world of stem cell research, and this scientific discovery concerning adult stem cell plasticity may be the key to treating previously incurable malignancies and diseases, as well as quieting most of the heated ethical debate concerning embryonic cells and their claim to life. Stem cell research needs to be advanced so scientists have the opportunity to discover if adult stem cells are just as viable as embryonic stem cells. Many questions remain unanswered and more research and government funding are certainly needed before humanity can progress in this new field. The British Medical Journal highlights how scientists will need to convince skeptics and the world that certain adult stem cell populations truly are as malleable as they would have us believe in recent studies; furthermore, “it is vital before we put these cells into humans in a clinical setting that we know more about how they reach their ultimate status, and indeed establish that this state really is final and stable” (4).
Stem cell research, whether embryonic or adult, will certainly always be shrouded by ethical concerns and moral implications, but foregoing this research entirely has its own deep bioethical implications. If stem cell research is prohibited or even made illegal, countless individuals may die from diseases that stem cell research could possibly cure. Therefore, stem cell research, preferably with the use of adult stem cells, is vital to our future. As a species defined by our own desire to advance, would we really passively accept the denial to create a better world?
1. The MNT Editorial Team. “What are Stem Cells?” Medical News Today. <https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/info/stem_cell> July 19, 2017.
2. Dresser, Rebecca. “Stem Cell Research as Innovation: Expanding the Ethical and Policy Conversation.” J Law Med Ethics. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2941662/> Summer 2010.
3. S. L. Preston, M. R. Alison, S. J. Forbes, N. C. Direkze, R. Poulsom, N. A. Wright. “The New Stem Cell Biology: Something for Everyone.” Volume 56, Issue 2. <http://mp.bmj.com/content/56/2/86> April 1, 2003.
4. National Institutes of Health, “NIH Stem Cell Information.” US Department of Health and Human Services. <https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/faqs.htm#adult> 2018.