Cord Blood Banking: Ethics of Stem Cell Research
Stem cell research is a topic that has garnered much heated debate and stem cell controversy only seems to be growing. Rooted in medical, religious and political discussions, the use of stem cells- and in particular embryonic stem cells- and stem cell research is linked to both advantages and disadvantages that are often conflicting in nature. Learn why human embryonic stem cell research is such a controversial topic and discover how cord blood stem cell research and cord blood banking is quickly becoming an increasing popular alternative option.
History of Stem Cell Research
The origins of stem cell research can be traced back to the mid nineteenth century, when scientists first began to regard cells as the foundation for human life. At the start of the twentieth century, European scientists identified stem cells as the source of all blood cells and soon bone marrow transplants (which are in fact stem cell transplants) were developed.
However, it has only been in the last decade that interest in stem cell research has exploded. In 1998, James Thompson of the University of Wisconsin and John Gearhart from John Hopkins University successfully grew the first human embryonic stem cells, paving the way for research into the development of stem cells to regenerate damaged organs.
Stem Cell Research Controversy
The crux of the controversy surrounding the use of stem cells lies in the often conflicting values of respect and right for human life, and a desire to minimize human suffering, an issue rooted in the use of embryonic stem cells in research.
As such, groups against stem cell research believe that the use of embryonic stem cells is unethical because they feel it destroys an embryo or fetus, an argument that is often rooted in religious convictions in addition to moral ones. This gives rise to the question of what constitutes human life; such groups feel that human life begins at conception or in the early stages of fetal development (14 days after conception).
In addition, one major controversy in stem cell research is the combination of stem cell research and cloning technology. This combination results in the development of an embryo that is a genetic clone of the nucleus donor. In this process, an embryo is created for a specific purpose; that is, for the generation of tissue used for transplantation, which some individuals feel is unethical, since upon uterine implantation, this embryo could develop into a human being.
Known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, this process is highly controversial due to both medical and ethical concerns and is illegal in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, where any research involving human cloning is prohibited.
Alternatively, individuals and groups who support embryonic stem cell research believe that the benefits of stem cell research are fundamental and therefore should continue to be explored in a more comprehensive manner. The benefits of stem cells include the potential treatment and cures of serious illnesses through transplantation, including spinal cord injury, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, diabetes and stroke.
Why Embryonic Stem Cells?
Embryonic stem cells are considered to be so valuable because of their high capacity for self-renewal; as such, they can be used in stem cell research with regard to early human development, as well as in the study of the effects of drugs and toxins. In addition, the use of embryonic cells in stem cell research is considered to be the most practical, as embryonic stem cells can lead to the development of every cell type in the body.
However, because embryonic stem cells have uncontrollable growth, tumors known as teratomas can develop; these tumors mean that embryonic stem cells have a limited usefulness in cell-based therapies. However, because the tumors are not produced in cultures, embryonic stem cells are a highly effective source of transplant tissue sources. Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that are 5 days old, when the embryo is known as a blastocyst. They can be cultivated in large numbers in the laboratory in a fairly easy manner.
Embryonic germ cells are a type of embryonic cell derived from the gonad ridge of the embryo. Isolated from a fetus that is over 8 weeks old, they are very similar to embryonic stem cells and do not generate tumors; however they can only survive a total of 70 to 80 cell divisions. One ethical concern regarding the use of embryonic germ cells is that these cells must be derived from a terminated fetus.
In comparison, adult stem cells have a limited range of cell types which they can yield. However, recent research has shown that some adult cells may be able to generate different types of tissues under appropriate conditions in order to increase their medical potential.
Cord Blood Banking and Stem Cell Research
Cord blood is considered to be a less contentious alternative source of stem cells. This is because stem cells from the umbilical cord in cord blood banking are collected following birth, meaning that there is no risk to a baby.
Cord blood is considered to be a preferred stem cell source because it contains the purest source of stem cells, meaning that there is a reduced risk of rejection as well as infection during the transplant procedure. The risk of Graft-versus-Host Disease is also greatly reduced.
In addition, cord blood stem cells have a higher concentration compared to blood marrow stem cells, meaning that a smaller amount of stem cells are needed, making cord blood a more effective source of stem cells. In addition, cord blood stem cells have a greater vitality and experience reduced aging because of preservation techniques.