Social media has been flooded recently with videos of the “ice bucket challenge” to support ALS research. Over the past few days, I have also seen several people opting out of the challenge because ethically, they cannot get behind the methods of research used in relation to ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). As I read these statements, I became unsettled with the cut-and-dried information that says because we don’t agree with this act, it must be wrong. The answer cannot be that simple however, when it comes to creating new life vs. sustaining and improving current life. So I started researching, digging through peer-reviewed journals and resources posted by those actually conducting the research. What I found was heavy but important, it both enlightened me and left me standing without solid answers.
We live in a generation of information overload and can quickly be succumbed to believing a headline or article we have read and then pouring out our opinions about said topic without investing time to look further into the facts. I, myself, am guilty of this. When it comes to embryonic stem cell research, I have never questioned what that means, why it’s important, and what it can do for our world. I have only followed the crowd that preaches this as an inconceivable act of taking a life in order to perform such research. But is it really so simple?
As a Christian and a biomedical science enthusiast, I felt the need to write about my findings here. However, my intent is not to share my opinion about when life begins or even about embryonic stem cell research. The only agenda I plan to push is the one of being well informed. My goal is to provide information about stem cell research that many may not know. There is also another reason I am writing; it is not to change or even challenge those who view these studies as evil, but to present the possibility that when it comes to the nature of this type of research, perhaps the answer is not as black and white as we perceive. Perhaps there is more to think about than what we read on social media or hear on the news.
Why Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
This method of research was birthed when scientists discovered the ability to isolate and grow human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). This classification of cells is unlike any other part of the human body and they offer researchers a new path to learn about the nature of many diseases that plague our species. This is because these cells have the potential to develop into various organs and tissues in the body. “In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, the inner cells give rise to the entire body of the organism, including all of the many specialized cell types and organs such as the heart, lung, skin, sperm, eggs and other tissues” (source). Researchers have come to find that many devastating diseases begin at this early stage of cell grow and thus, they can use these cells to study how a disease develops and potentially find new treatments.
In the majority of clinical trials, embryonic stem cells come from embryos that are donated following in vitro fertilization (IVF). When a couple undergoes IVF, several eggs are fertilized at one time and after the family unit has been completed (ie: the couple does not want any more children) there are various options available for the remaining embryos:
- They can be thawed and discarded (thus resulting in the loss of the embryo)
- The couple can pay to have the embryos stored indefinitely (estimated at $2000 per year)
- They can donate the embryos to another couple for IVF or adoption purposes
- The embryo can be donated to research to find potential treatments for a variety of diseases (source)
It was estimated in 2003 that there are roughly 400,000 embryos in storage at fertility clinics (source). Another complicated question to add to this discussion is, what do we do with all these embryos? If they were all created with the intention of developing into infants and coming forth into the world, there would be a new set of challenges to conquer. The view of some may be to reduce the number of embryos created during IVF, or eliminate the opportunity for IVF all together, but we live in a fallen world where 1 in 10 couples are infertile and I question if it is the responsibility of any one person to decide to fate of all these families.
In addition to receiving donated embryos after fertility treatments, researchers have also obtained the needed embryonic stem cells through fertilization within the lab and on a rare occasion, from those that were donated following an elective abortion. Here again, to state that the answer is to eliminate the mechanism for which humans can create life or to ban women from receiving abortions in our country will not solve the problem, it only reminds us that there is no simple answer in this case.
So, why use human embryonic stem cells? Surely there is an alternative. Scientists are vigorously looking for an alternative, but at this point nothing has proven to be as promising as those tiny masses of cells. Adult stem cells can be useful to a degree, when the needed therapy is related to a specific tissue or organ (this has been used often in researching certain blood and neural diseases). In addition, researchers have developed a method that will reprogram adult stem cells to become embryo-like cell in which they can derive a greater variety of organ and tissue cells (called iPS cells). The difference is that true embryonic stem cells can live and grow in a lab for years, whereas these new technologies are less adaptable. Alternative solutions may be discovered in the future but currently, there is no comparable organism.
The Ultimate Dilemma
Thus far, I have provided information about what it means to use human embryonic stem cells in research and why it is so important. The therapies and treatments that may come as a result of this research could help those suffering from a vast range of diseases, many for which there currently is no treatment or cure. Here is a list of the current projects underway at California’s Stem Cell Agency, which are all making progress due to the use of hESCs: Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrphic lateral sclerosis (ALS), autism, blindness, brain tumors, leukemia, melanoma, sarcoma (cancer of bone and soft tissues, generally arising in children and young adults), cancer (general), deafness, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, HIV, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, sickle cell anemia, spinal cord injuries (paralysis), and stroke (improved recovery).
As previously stated, my intent is not to push an agenda and I am not stating that I agree one hundred percent with the nature of such research. Yet, I look at the list above and think about those I know who are or have struggled with any of the listed conditions and I have to take a step back. This is where things get messy; this is why we cannot proclaim an easy answer to this dilemma. If we are completely honest, taking a stand against embryonic stem cell research ultimately means taking a stand against promising research that may provide a cure for many life-threatening diseases. If one life is not more important than another, and the life of the embryo could save thousands of other disease-stricken lives, should we refrain from using it? I don’t believe there is a simple yes or no answer. But I believe it’s something to think about.
One Final Thought
Let me steer off the science path for a minute as I pose this next question. Much of the backlash in this debate comes from the Christian circle because we believe that God is the creator of all life and even the tiniest of embryos is a life that He has chosen and foreseen to exist. Here’s my question, is it possible these embryos were created by God for the purpose of participating in research that could save thousands of lives? Our Lord is mysterious and wild in His ways; therefore, I am not convinced any of us here on Earth can know the specific purpose for which each life was created.
We live in a broken world full of complex problems and the solutions can often times land in a gray area of morality. To hold tight to perceptions without knowing the entire story is to potentially fall into error. But to be educated on subject, to know what and why things are the way they are, and then to make a well-informed decision with that knowledge – that is power. I say again, the purpose of this article is not to push an agenda when it comes to human stem cell research. I believe your support or lack of support is a personal decision, and I’m not here to judge what you chose to follow. However, I will push the agenda of being educated and making sure you know in full what you are getting behind, especially when it comes to the oversaturation of opinions on social media. If I have caused one person reading this to think more deeply and research more thoroughly, then I consider this piece a success.