It’s been over ten years since the National Academies addressed the delicate issues when researching human embryonic stem cells. Still, the topic remains a controversial one, even for nurses who are directly exposed to the embryos used and those nurse researchers who are helping pave the way for its use.
The guidelines submitted by the National Academies were not legally binding, but they did lay the groundwork for the way in which scientists, nurses, and other medical professionals should work with stem cells. They encourage researchers to not just be responsible, but also to be ethical and sensitive when working with human stem cells. This is a passionate topic, and one which still raises many doubt and questions.
What Are Stem Cells?
To better understand why this is such a hot topic, you need to know what stem cells are in the first place. Your body is made up entirely of cells, each with their own function to perform. Stem cells differ in that they are not specialized in any way. They have the ability to morph into other cell types when dividing. Each time a stem cell divides, it can remain a stem cell or it can become a cell with a specific function.
At the very start of life are stem cells, waiting for instruction on which organ or other body part to form into. These embryonic stem cells are the basis of your entire physical being. Adult stem cells also exist, but their primary function is usually just to divide and repair damaged tissues. Embryonic stem cells’ primary function is to bring to life a new human form, from the skin on the tip of your finger, to the valves that control your heart.
What Scientists Discovered With Embryonic Stem Cells
Once you understand the power that a stem cell has, it is easy to understand why this is such a huge debate for medical researchers. The ability to be able to manipulate these cells has the potential to cure thousands of diseases. Physicians could regenerate the damaged cells in the heart, for example, and restore the organ to complete health. This type of regenerative medicine would also benefit patients who have spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, cancer, osteoarthritis and burn wounds.
Stem cells can be found in the blood of the umbilical cord just after birth, the bone marrow, lipid cells and in the blood of adults to use for research, but it is the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research which creates the most controversy.
The Ethical Issues Surrounding Embryonic Stem Cell Research
The beliefs and laws regarding contraception, abortion, in vitro fertilization and when life begins is what makes certain groups opposed to the use of embryonic stem cells for research. The most common way to obtain these cells is through unused fertilized eggs from an in vitro fertilization practice. The fertilized eggs, or blastocysts, are typically donated voluntarily by the couple who stored them but are not continuing with in vitro fertilization. Consent must be given by both parties in order for researchers to be able to gain access to the blastocysts. Nurses working in these types of medical facilities are a vital part in helping to gain that consent. If opposed to the idea of using embryonic stem cells for medical research, you could find that your ethical views conflict with an important aspect of your job.
A scientist must remove the inner cell mass of a blastocyst in order to study the stem cells it contains. Once this occurs, that fertilized egg will no longer be able to continue to develop. Those who believe that life begins at the time of conception are opposed to this, as it essentially is destroying the chances of the embryo to evolve into a baby.
Those religions and cultures who believe that life begins at conception believe that these embryos deserve protection, even after the parents have abandoned them. Individuals who are supportive of stem cell research feel that a human life does not begin until birth, or after they have developed for a few months inside of the womb.
The Ethical Use of Animals in Stem Cell Research
In order for scientists to fully understand how stem cells work, and how they can be manipulated, they use animals as hosts. This involves the use of human-animal chimeras, which are organisms that have combined cells. An example of this would be taking human stem cells and transplanting them into a mouse to map the development of the pancreas. This is an important step towards allowing stem cell advancements to be used on humans, but one that certain animal rights activists object to.
The National Academies has prohibited certain animals from this type of research, specifically non-human primates. They have also made it clear that human and animal cells cannot be transferred to a viable human blastocyst, nor can this type of research be used to try and breed an organism that has both animal and human cells.
Skirting Around the Sin
The start of human life, and the potential to manipulate it, is at the core of stem cell research controversy for religious activists. This is a delicate topic where medical scientists and the nurses who work with them must be sure that they are working well within the guidelines and laws outlined in order to avoid giving those activists just cause to have it all shut down.
Stopping this type of research in its tracks would be detrimental to all of the progress that has already been made in finding ways to restore damaged cells and bring patients back to full health, a goal which every nurse would love to see reached. Stem cell research does have the potential of being medicines saving grace, but only if the scientists involved are taking the steps to avoid it being seen as a sin.