The use of stem cells in medicine is a greatly debated subject from individuals of all backgrounds and beliefs. A major problem with the debates surrounding this is that they are usually one-sided and lacking in scientific basis; a challenge often faced by the scientific community (for e.g. vaccines, masks, HIV you name it, people will not be fully informed). Many people have misconceptions about the distribution of this information.
Many people are familiar with the most controversial type of stem cells – embryonic stem cells (ESCs) – that are often the focus of ethical concerns. However, they are helpful in certain medical applications as they are totipotent cells, meaning they can differentiate (turn) into all types of cells, including those that make up the placenta. Many believe that life begins at the point of conception. ESCs are usually collected from IVF treatments, from unused embryos that would be destroyed as only one egg would be implanted, however the fact remains that these eggs are still fertilized.
A less controversial type of stem cell is tissue-specific stem cells (TSCs). They are more ethically sourced than ESCs as they can be found in bone marrow – often from the hip bone – however this involves invasive surgery that can be painful. These cells are multipotent cells (capable of differentiating into a few types of cells). They’re commonly used in treating diseases by boosting the immune system (e.g. sickle cell anemia), but their application can also be applied to treating even the most fatal of illnesses, such as leukemia. These cells can be harvested from Umbilical Cord Blood (UCB) and stored. However, it is as an expensive service, contributing to the notion that stem cells are elitist.
The third type of stem cell is induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). They are produced in labs by changing the DNA sequencing of TSCs, to make them behave like ESCs. They are useful in lab settings as they are in a much greater proportion compared to ESCs and allow for cells to be most compatible to research and use in therapies. Often, this is criticized as ‘designing’ somebody’s DNA. The moral boundaries surrounding this may cause some to question whether it is an ethical line of research, but it does not mean moral boundaries cannot be maintained by the scientific community throughout this endeavor.
A large portion of the population are against the use of ESCs, thus, the scientific community has found a way to make new cells that are not embryonic, albeit similar. However, because they are engineered and human at the same time, they still pose ethical concerns which might prevent the advancement of science. It seems the balance between the prevention of many diseases and the ethics of the use of stem cells is still an area that will continue to attract debate for many years into the future.