The use of embryonic stem cells is a hotly disputed scientific issue – as Nottingham University is one of only 9 centres in the UK authorised to conduct stem cell research, we have a wealth of knowledge right on our doorstep. Last issue, we opened the debate on stem cells, and here we continue it, with opinions from both students and staff.
What the experts say
Dr Margaret Pratten, School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Nottingham, works in the fields of Embryo development, embryonic stem cell culture, pregnancy and in vitro techniques.
What are stem cells?
There are several different sorts of stem cells – some are derived from adult tissue that actually has stem cells still present and some are derived from embryonic cells. These can spontaneously differentiate into different cell types.
So, why are stem cells such a big deal?
Because they have the potential – particularly embryonic stem cells (they don’t tend to set up the sort of immune reactions that adult cells do) – to form any sort of cell type that could be placed within adult tissues and populate them. But there’s also the possibility that you can actually get stem cells from the umbilical cord. If your parents were to bank cells from your own umbilical cord they could be stored until they were needed, then you could make them grow into whatever you needed to repair yourself. Or, you could take some cells from an embryo and keep some of them back, because when an embryo’s in that undifferentiated state, removal of some cells doesn’t make too much difference to it and it will just grow into a normal human being.
A lot of people say they’re not against adult stem cell research, but they’re against embryonic stem cell research. What would you say about that?
I think the problem there is that some people feel even at that very early stage, the embryo is a person and an individual that has a right to live. Now, it’s a bit of a flawed argument, because if they’re left over from IVF, they just get destroyed anyway.
So do you think we should carry on the research into embryonic stem cells?
I think people, when they first realised that they had this potential, thought that it would be a lot easier than it’s turned out to be, like most things. Stem cells are very frustrating things to work with, because they are so uncontrollable – it makes them potentially quite dangerous to put back into a person, because you could be infecting them with what effectively would be a cancer, because the cells just do what they like. Until that has been all ironed out, it’s going to be a theoretical possibility rather than a practicality – all the hype in the newspapers implies it’s round the corner, but I don’t think it is.
By Aarohi Sharma
Peter Griet (PG) favours further treatment with the successfully proven adult stem cells, as the destruction of embryonic stem cells devalues human identity.
Sophie Stammers (SS) thinks most researchers’ notions of human identity are as given to ‘plasticity’ as their primitive cells, but that the potential medical treatments outweigh these concerns.
PG: The range of cures and treatments available with adult stems cells is at least as great as those from embryonic stem cells. In fact, government reports say that thinking otherwise “contradicts the conventional wisdom that stem cells derived from adult tissue have restricted potential to differentiate”. By the end of 2007, 72 treatments had been completed using adult stems cells and none using embvryonic stem cells, despite many private companies being allowed to research using both methods.
SS: Disregarding embryonic stem cell research simply because adult stem cells have so far provided the only successful treatments does not imply the inferiority of embryonic stem cell research, but simply that it is a new field. It is true that we’re a long way from achieving the promised benefits exclusive to embryonic stem cells (treatment of spinal injuries, Huntington’s disease and even cancer) but by ceasing embryonic research in favour of proven but less effective treatment, we’d never know.
PG: What about human identity? At what stage does a clump of cells disposable to researchers become a human life? To say ‘at some stage after embryonic research’ is arbitrary – what is the difference between a living embryo in its early stages and a 24 week old foetus?
SS: It seems that most scientists would want to say that the identity of living things is a matter of degree, not kind, which could be problematic. But in talking about human identity and the right to life, aren’t medical patients just as entitled to the life that embryonic stem cell advances could bring? Ceasing embryonic stem cell research could potentially rob such patients of treatment, so for me the ethical imperative is towards embryonic research as a life-sustaining field.
PG: There are two sides to that argument, but neither will provide an adequate answer to the identity and rights of embryos.