Raina had taken the time to inform herself about the ongoing ES cell debate. She learned that ES cell lines are obtained by removing a group of cells, called the inner cell mass, from an embryo that is about five days old (also known as a blastocyst), and growing the cells in a Petri dish. The cells are prized by researchers because they are pluripotent, meaning that they have the potential to differentiate into a wide range of different types of cells if properly stimulated. Proponents of ES cell research say that such cells could be used to cure conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and spinal cord injuries. In addition, ES cells could be studied to help scientists understand the basic processes of human development, and used to test new drugs.
ES cell research opponents say that it should be restricted because it requires the destruction of human life. Raina found this issue to be one of great concern. She learned that the ES cell lines currently used for research are obtained from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF). These embryos are voluntarily donated, and otherwise would be discarded. Raina wondered if embryos, even those so early in development, should be considered human beings. If so, then producing an excess of them for IVF and then discarding them would be wrong. Might it also be wrong to benefit from their sacrifice?
Raina had read about stem cells from other sources besides embryos. Some, known as embryonic germ cells, may be obtained from aborted or miscarried fetuses, but this source is subject to the same sort of controversy as ES cells. Some very promising results have come from research using stem cells taken from the umbilical cord and placenta, and adult tissues such as bone marrow and parts of the brain. In fact, some of these non-embryonic cells have already been used to treat medical conditions, including blood disorders, spinal cord injury and heart attack damage. Such stem cells are obtained without harming embryos or fetuses, and for this reason their use meets with few ethical objections. However, they appear to be more limited in their ability to differentiate than ES cells.
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