Stem cell research is a promising field, offering treatment for many incurable diseases, such as spinal cord injury, myocardial infarction, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes. Despite its unlimited benefits, it faces many ethical concerns. Since it involves the use of human embryos, this raises criticisms concerning the onset of human personhood. There are also several concerns related to downstream research, permission related to the donation of human stem cell (hSC) material, and clinical trials of its therapies. These ethical issues must be considered to conduct safe stem cell research.
Bioethics intervenes in science by imposing limits, rules, and regulations and spreading awareness. Some factors that raise ethical concerns related to stem cells are highlighted here.
Isolation of embryonic stem cells involves the destruction of embryos. There is no denial of the fact that if an embryo is implanted at the proper hormonal phase in a woman’s uterus, it can develop into a human. Therefore, it raises some religious concerns that destroying an embryo gives the impression of giving birth to a life.
One way of obtaining a new embryo for embryonic stem cells is by using frozen eggs from couples who have gone through infertility treatment. If a couple decides to donate their embryos, there can be several ethical issues regarding the consent of the couple or gamate donor and the privacy of the donor’s information.
Confidentiality lapses can expose donors to unwanted publicity and even harassment.
There is no clear informed consent about the extent to which future possible research can be conducted on those embryos.
In the case of IVF, if a couple decides to discard their frozen embryos after their treatment, there is a possibility of removing identifiers so they can be used for research later on.
Some gamate donors do not permit the use of their gametes for research purposes.
A technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) involves the introduction of nuclear DNA from a donor to an oocyte. The nucleus of this oocyte is removed. This results in the formation of clones with the involvement of only a single genetic parent, which is not scientifically, religiously, or morally acceptable.
The reproduction of humans in this way involves several errors in genetic make-up, along with the inactivation of key embryonic genes. This is why cloning is illegal in most countries.
Sometimes, human DNA is incoorporated in non-human oocytes, creating “cytoplasmic hybrid embryos”, raising further ethical concerns. This can also risk the formation of chimaeras with characteristics of both humans and animals. This would create hybrid embryos, disrupting natural order. Considering this, every species has a particular goal or moral purpose, which mankind should not try to change.
The formation of interspecies chimaera by incorporating organs from some other species into animals for medical purposes creates further complexities. The new chimeric animal can risk having human-level consciousness due to the high concentration of human cells in its brain. Furthermore, there is a risk of the formation of human gametes in these chimeric animals.
This is germline editing. Scientists incorporate genes with desired characteristics into eggs, sperm, or embryos within a few days. These modifications pass the gene on to future generations. However, many cases ban such highly unethical practices. It would change the genetic makeup of humans in unpredictable ways. It intends to target “genetic imperfections” by changing traits such as height, intelligence, complexion, or treating genetic illnesses.
This could create insecurities for especially abled or financially deprived people and further widen the gap in our society. The underdeveloped technology poses a risk to both the life of the mother and the embryo.
Risk of Undergoing Unproven Stem Cell Treatments
Stem cell injections are a serious threat to the well-being and health of a patient. It imposes a risk of tumour formation along with abnormal bone growth. It could also cause allergic reactions, immune system rejection, and infections. In addition to this, stem cell tourism (i.e., advertisement to the public for stem cells as a proven treatment) raises hopes of cure to the extent that patients pay a huge amount of money to private clinics for these unproven stem cell therapies, especially if it is a disease affecting a child. Since children cannot make decisions for themselves, parents take this undue risk of wanting the best for their child.
Disadvantages of iPSCs
Induced pluripotential stem cells (iPSCs) are reprogramming somatic cells back to pluripotent stem cells. The use of retroviruses to produce iPSCs is the main problem. They have the tendency to cause cancer. Retroviruses can incorporate their DNA anywhere inside the genome and can trigger cancer-causing gene expression.
Somatic cell donors actively object to injecting their cells into animals. This may be due to religious reasons for mixing animal and human species, or they may oppose all animal research.
Human stem cell research offers exciting opportunities for scientific advances and new therapies but also raises some complex policy and ethical concerns. Consider these issues alongside scientific challenges to ensure ethical stem cell research practices