Should stem cells be used in research?

What are Stem Cells?

Stems cells have the ability to become any other cell in the body. They are the “master cells” of the body. This is the only cell in the body that can generate new types of cells.

Embryonic vs. Adult Stem Cells

Embryonic CellsAdult Cells
Cultivated from the blastocyst stage of embryo development
Pluripotent(can divide into more stem cells or develop into any other cell type)
More stem cells are available
More versatile and durable
May cause transplant rejection
High ethical controversy
The legal status is uncertain
Cultivated from an adult patient
Multipotent (can only divide and renew into cells present in a certain organ or tissue)
Harder to cultivate
Limited amount of stem cells
Less likely to cause transplant rejection
Less moral and legal controversy

This table and diagram explain the differences between the different types of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, while adult stem cells are multipotent.

Stem Cell Research: Global Guidelines

China has one of the most unrestrictive stem cell policies [1]. In 2003, guidelines were issued that required that embryos used for stem cell research be leftover from in vitro fertilization (IVF); fetal cells from abortions; blastocytes from Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT); or germline cells voluntarily donated. Interestingly, according to Chinese cultural attitudes, a person’s life begins with a birth [3].
South Africa
Initially, South Africa enacted legislation that banned reproductive cloning but authorized therapeutic cloning [1]. In 2004, this country became the first African nation to create a stem cell bank.
United Kingdom
The Human Fertilization and Embryology Act (HFEA) of 1990 and the Human Reproductive Cloning Act of 2001 permit the destruction of embryos for human embryonic stem cells (hESC) and allows for SCNT [4]. This is only permissible if the proposed research increases knowledge about the development of embryos or serious disease or enables such knowledge to be applied in developing treatments for serious disease. As a result, the United Kingdom is one of the leading centers for hESC research.
The Brazilian government passed legislation in March 2005 that allows the use of excess IVF embryos that have been frozen for more than three years [1]. The Brazilian Catholic Church challenged the law, arguing that embryonic stem cell research violates the right to life, but Brazil’s Supreme Court rejected the petition, thus permitting embryonic stem cell research [6].
United States
Under the auspices of the Obama administration, the National Institutes of Health plans to expand federal funding for stem cell lines that meet certain ethical requirements: the embryo was discarded after IVF; informed consent was obtained from the donors; the couple does not receive compensation (neither financial nor medical benefits) or are coerced or threatened [7]. Older stem cell lines created in the spirit of the new regulations will be considered for federal funding, whereas embryos created solely for research purposes will be excluded [8].
While Mexico has a flourishing stem cell industry, it does not have formal regulations [9]. Mexican doctors currently are using stem cells to treat ill foreigners, including Americans, who suffer from ailments such as cerebral palsy, autism, and paralysis. The international medical community has criticized this lack of regulation.

The map shows a general overview of the restrictiveness of each country’s stem cell research policies.

Stem Cell Research: Different Lens

From a Bioethicist’s Perspective

Autonomy is Not Universal: In most stem cell research labs donors of the embryos must give informed consent for the usage of their embryo in research. Many countries like Mexico (mentioned above), however, lack policies around stem cell research for the preservation of this autonomy. Whether or not autonomy is protected is often dependant on the country conducting the research. 

Beneficence is Violated:  If we consider embryos to be human beings, another question altogether, then the principle of beneficence as well as autonomy is violated. Beneficience is not upheld given that stem cell research involves destroying embryos.

International Injustice:  There is no guarantee there will be enough embryos to share a potential treatment with those who need it. Therefore, it is unlikely treatment will be distributed equally to everyone.

From a Religious Perspective

Jewish and Muslim Communities: Embryonic stem cell research is supported. Both religions share the common belief that an embryo doesn’t become a human until 40 days after conception. Muslims believe human life begins when the soul enters the baby which is between 40-120 days after conception.

Christian and Catholic Communites: Embryonic stem cell research is not accepted. The Catholic Church is not against all stem cell research, but they are against embryonic stem cell research. They believe embryos should be treated like any other human person and Christian religions also follow this same idea. 

*People’s stance differs person-by-person and isn’t always based on someone’s religion.*

From a Patient’s Perspective

Patients For: Many patients struggling with diseases like Parkinson and Alzheimer’s or are terminally-ill see the merit of embryonic stem cell research. Patients at the end of their journey advocate for this research to continue to find cures for their conditions. Some patients in these conditions will be very willing to participate in clinical trials or therapies that involve embryonic stem cells, as their “last resort.”

Patients Against: Some patients wouldn’t agree with the destruction of embryos for the advancement of medicine. Despite having debilitating diseases these patients wouldn’t choose to participate in trials or research to find cures for the sake of saving what they believe is a human life.

From a Researcher’s Perspective

The Consensus: Almost all researchers agree with stem cell research because it is their job and they weigh the advancement of science more heavily. Generally, researchers view an embryo as a developing being but not one yet. As couples undergoing in vitro fertilization treatment for infertility there are often leftover embryos that get wasted. Researchers heavily believe in the importance of donating these embryos for research. If there is no other use for the embryo, discarding it would be more unethical than using it for scientific research.

Stem Cell Research: Our Connection

Why it matters…

  • Increases knowledge on human development
  • May help cure diseases
  • Has the potential to create regenerative medicine 
  • People may be at risk with the transplantation and donation of stem cells

What you can do…

  • Be open to other people’s opinion on stem cell research
  • Understand the different perspectives involved in stem cell research
  • Be aware of the risks and also benefits of stem cell research
  • Talk about this issue with others to open up discussion about this controversial topic
  • No the limits of stem cell research
Be aware of unapproved stem cell therapies before you, a family member or friend gets involved.

More Questions?

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  1. April 24, 2020 by Raag Venkat

    What an amazing cause! Your presentation has great organization and is aesthetically pleasing. Before this presentation, I only knew that stem cells were revolutionary and didn’t consider the ethics behind the issue. How are stem cells harvested? Are we born with them or do we culture stem cells in a lab? Great work.

  2. April 26, 2020 by Alessandra

    Wow! This is an amazing presentation! I think you did really well with stating different sides to one argument. People tend to stick with their own opinion and not even regard anyone else’s ideas. The conversation surrounding stem cells is so controversial, but you managed to put it all in one presentation and I greatly admire that. Amazing job!

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