The ethical issues related to embryonic stem cell research have resulted in the discovery of numerous alternatives to the said process. Naturally, the origin of embryonic stem cells will always be a sensitive issue and there are strict guidelines and legislation regarding any research involving embryos. In fact, for many, research on adult stem cells obtained from the bone marrow or other tissues in the body is the only acceptable alternative.
Although the use of embryonic germ cells has also been considered, it has been found to go against all ethical issues, since obtaining them requires the destruction of a foetus. In fact, embryonic germ cells are only isolated from terminated pregnancies or embryos no longer required for IVF procedures which would otherwise be thrown away, and no foetuses are created for research purposes.
Research teams in the United States and Japan have also managed to develop a simple and inexpensive method to reprogram human skin cells to function like embryonic stem cells by inserting an artificial virus. However, this technique may disrupt the DNA of the new stem cells, resulting in damaged and cancerous tissue. Researchers have also succeeded in extracting stem cells from a mouse embryo without killing it. If perfected, this technique could relieve many ethical issues regarding the extraction of embryonic stem cells.
Differences between Stem Cells
There are numerous differences between embryonic and adult stem cells and these govern the numerous decisions taken by individuals regarding which of the two researches should be pursued. Embryonic stem and germ cells for instance can give rise to any cell in the human body whereas adult stem cells are multipotent and only give rise to a limited range of cell types. This may limit their use in cell based therapies and many researchers believe that using embryonic stem cells would be more fruitful. However, it has been proved that some adult stem cells may be induced to form other cell types under specific conditions and this may increase their therapeutic potential.
Embryonic stem cells also have a greater capacity for self renewal and the cell lines that have been established from them will be useful for research into the effects of drugs and toxins, and also into early human development. Their uncontrolled growth also leads to the development of tumours called teratomas. This may restrict their use in cell based therapies. Adult stem cells on the other hand do not form tumours so making them a better choice for cell based therapies. Nevertheless, embryonic stem cells do not form tumours in culture and may therefore provide a better alternative for tissue culture.
Naturally, there are both advantages and disadvantages to using embryonic stem and germ cells as well as adult stem cells and most scientists agree that research should be pursued in all fields until a decision on which of the three would provide the best alternative be taken. All scientists are also aware that they should approach all research in this sensitive field ethically and within the bounds of the law.