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The truth behind human embryonic stem cell research

By Sabrina Chow

Section: Opinions

February 9, 2018

As someone extremely passionate about science, it frustrates me to see scientific research halted by people who are not completely informed about a topic. Before going straight to judgment, learn the history and all the facts and make an informed decision, not an uninformed decision. Stem cell research has been around since the late 20th century, but has seen a lot of backlash since its creation. The backlash that comes from individuals, however, seem to come from the same misconceptions that are fundamentally wrong in nature.

In the late 1500s, Robert Hooke first discovered the cell. As history continued, more and more parts of eukaryotic cells were discovered. Most cells have specific functions. For example, a skin cell or blood cell, which form all of our tissues and enable our body to work. Stem cells are essentially “unassigned” cells. They can change their character to help heal all cuts and rebuild any degenerate tissue that may have been affected within the body. There are four main types of stem cells: somatic, embryonic, hematopoietic and induced-pluripotent. Most of these stem cells are not particularly controversial. Somatic stem cells are the “adult” stem cells, stored in our bodies to help fix injuries. Embryonic stem cells come from human embryos, as distinguished by their names. Hematopoietic stem cells are found specifically in the blood of the umbilical cord and placenta of newborn babies. Hematopoietic stem cells are the same cells found in the bone marrow. The final type of stem cell, induced-pluripotent, is the only type of stem cell that is not made naturally. It is essentially an adult stem cell that was genetically reprogrammed into an embryonic form.

When doctors use stem cells to treat a disease, they use the somatic stem cells that occur naturally in our bodies. These cells, however, are limited in that they are individual to each person and body system. On the other hand, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) can be manipulated into pretty much anything. In other words, modern science has access to cells that are able to be created into whatever we need. We should utilize these programmable cells instead of somatic stem cells with limited functionalities.

One of the largest debates over hESCs is the origin of the stem cells and the ethics surrounding it. This controversy is one of the biggest misconceptions with hESCs. Many pro-life politicians and their supporters are against hESCs because they believe that the stem cells are obtained from the embryos of babies who have been aborted. This belief is not true. All hESCs that are donated come from four to five day old blastocysts, or younger embryos, according to the National Institutes of Health. A large majority of people against stem cell research have strong religious beliefs. Since hESCs are able to be manipulated into pretty much any type of cell, they have given scientists the freedom to ‘play God’ in the eyes of some religious groups. In addition to this concern, as medicine continues to advance, we as a society are inching closer and closer to the reality of science fiction, where parents are able to create the perfect “designer child,” leading to neo-eugenics and a new subset of the human population.

The procedure of IVF involves the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. The procedure is often used by people who cannot conceive naturally and can be extremely expensive, reaching almost $20,000 for just one round of treatment. Even with the expense and precision of this procedure, it is only around 40 percent effective. This 40 percent success rate is not stagnant across treatments but rather the effectiveness becomes lower with each fertilization, as well as with the natural progression of aging.

Many mothers who could not conceive through IVF choose to donate their embryos to further the research. Hospitals and research institutions do not just take the cells whenever they want from parents still grieving over lost children. The process of volunteering allows them a unique opportunity to cope. Oftentimes, mothers who chose to donate cells are doing so as an opportunity to put the life of their unborn child to a better cause and help contribute to the future of medicine.

Common misconceptions about stem cell research should not get in the way of scientific and medical progress and should not impede the ability of IVF participants to cope with ineffective procedures in the way that they choose.

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