By Jonathan Sussman, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
Volume 4 Issue 1
Tags: Embryonic Stem Cells, Spinal Cord Injury, Alzheimer’s
Embryonic stem cells have immense medical potential. While both their acquisition for and use in research are fraught with controversy, arguments against their usage are rebutted by showing that embryonic stem cells are not equivalent to human lives. It is then argued that not using human embryos is unethical. Finally, an alternative to embryonic stem cells is presented.
Embryonic stem cells have the potential to cure nearly every disease and condition known to humanity. Stem cells are nature’s Transformers. They are small cells that can regenerate indefinitely, waiting to transform into a specialized cell type such as a brain cell, heart cell or blood cell . Most stem cells form during the earliest stages of human development, immediately when an embryo is formed. These cells, known as embryonic stem cells (ESCs), eventually develop into every single type of cell in the body. As the embryo develops, adult stem cells (ASCs) replace these all-powerful embryonic stem cells. ASCs can only become a number of different cells within their potency. This limited application means an adult mesenchymal stem cell cannot become a neural cell.
By harnessing the unique ability of embryonic stem cells to transform into functional cells, scientists can develop treatments for a number of diseases and injuries, according to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a private organization which awards grants for stem cell research . For example, scientists at the Cleveland Clinic converted ESCs into heart muscle cells and injected them into patients who suffered from heart attacks. The cells continued to grow and helped the patients’ hearts recover .
With this enormous potential to cure devastating diseases, including heart failure, spinal cord injuries and Alzheimer’s disease, governments and research organizations have the moral imperative to support and encourage embryonic stem cell research. President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2009 loosening federal funding restrictions on stem cell research, saying, “We will aim for America to lead the world in the discoveries it one day may yield.” . The National Institute of Health and seven state governments, including California, Maryland and New York, followed Obama’s lead by creating programs that offered over $5 billion in funding and other incentives to scientists and research institutions for stem cell research .
A Miracle Cure
Scientists believe that harnessing the capability of embryonic stem cells will unlock the cure for countless diseases. “I am very excited about embryonic stem cells,” said Dr. Dieter Egli, professor of developmental cell biology at Columbia University. “They will lead to unprecedented discoveries that will transform life. I have no doubt about it.” . The results thus far are inspiring. In 2016, Kris Boesen, a 21-year-old college student from Bakersfield, California, suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. In a clinical trial conducted by Dr. Charles Liu at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Boesen was injected with 10 million embryonic stem cells that transformed into nerve cells . Three months after the treatment, Boesen regained the use of his arms and hands. He could brush his teeth, operate a motorized wheelchair, and live more independently. “All I’ve wanted from the beginning was a fighting chance,” he said. The power of stem cells made his wish possible .
Embryonic stem cell treatments may also cure type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, which affects 42 million worldwide, is an autoimmune disorder that results in the destruction of insulin-producing beta cells found in the pancreas . ViaCyte, a company in San Diego, California, is developing an implant that contains replacement beta cells originating from embryonic stem cells . The implant will preserve or replace the original beta cells to protect them from the patient’s immune system . The company believes that if successful, this strategy will effectively cure type 1 diabetes. Patients with the disease will no longer have to closely monitor their blood sugar levels and inject insulin . ViaCyte projects that an experimental version of this implant will become available by 2020 .
Ultimately, scientists believe they will grow complex organs using stem cells within the next decade . Over 115,000 people in the United States need a life-saving organ donation, and an average of 20 people die every day due to the lack of available organs for transplant, according to the American Transplant Foundation . Three-dimensional printing of entire organs derived from stem cells holds the most promise for solving the organ shortage crisis . Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have successfully printed part of a functional liver . While the printed liver is not ready for transplant, it still performs the functions of a normal liver. This has helped scientists reduce the need for often cruel and unethical animal testing. The scientists expose drugs to the printed liver and observe how it reacts. The liver’s response closely mimics that of a human being’s and no living animals are harmed in the process .
Human Cells or Human Life?
Research using embryonic stems cells provides an unprecedented understanding of human development and the potential to cure devastating diseases. However, stem cell research has generated controversy among religious organizations such as the Catholic Church as well as the “pro-life” movement . That is because scientists harvest stem cells from embryos donated by fertility clinics. Opponents of embryonicstem cell research equate the destruction of an embryo to the murder of an innocent human being . Pope Benedict XVI said that harvesting stem cells is “not only devoid of the light of God but is also devoid of humanity” . However, this view does not reflect a reasonable understanding and interpretation of basic biology. Researchers typically harvest embryonic stem cells from an embryo five days after fertilization . At this stage, the entire embryo consists of less than 250 cells, smaller than the tip of a pin. Of these cells, only 30 are embryonic stem cells, which cannot perform any human function . For comparison, an adult has more than 72 trillion cells, each with a specialized function . Therefore, this microscopic blob of cells in no way represents human life.
With no functional cells, there exist no characteristics of a human being. Fundamentalist Christians believe that the presence or absence of a heartbeat signifies the beginning and end of a human life . However, at this stage there is no heart, not even a single heart cell . Some contend that brain activity, or the ability to feel, defines a human being. Michael Gazzaniga, president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explains in his book, The Ethical Brain, that the “fertilized egg is a clump of cells with no brain.” . There is no brain nor nerve cells that could allow this cellular object to interact with its environment . The only uniquely human feature of embryonic cells at this stage is that they contain human DNA. This means that a 5-day-old human embryo is effectively no different than the Petri dishes of human cells that have grown in laboratories for decades with no controversy or opposition. Therefore, if the cluster of cells in the earliest stage of a human embryo is considered a “human life,” a growing plate of skin cells must also be considered “human life.” Few would claim that a Petri dish of human cells is morally equivalent to a living human or any other animal. Why, then, would a microscopic collection of embryonic cells have the same moral status as an adult human?
The status of the human embryo comes from its potential to turn into a fully grown human being. However, the potential of this entity to become an individual does not logically mean that it has the same status as an individual who can think and feel. If this were true, virtually every cell grown in a laboratory would be subject to the same controversy. This is because scientists have developed technology to convert an ordinary cell such as a skin cell into an embryo . Although this requires a laboratory with special conditions, the normal development of a human being also requires special conditions in the womb of the mother. Therefore, almost any cell could be considered a potential individual, so it is illogical to conclude that a cluster of embryonic cells deserves a higher moral status.
The Fate of Unused Embryos
Hundreds of thousands of embryos are destroyed each year in a process known as in vitro fertilization (IVF), a popular procedure that helps couples have children . Society has an ethical obligation to use these discarded embryos to make medical advancements rather than simply throw them in the trash for misguided ideological and religious reasons as opponents of embryonic stem cell research desire.
With IVF, a fertility clinician harvests sperm and egg cells from the parents and creates an embryo in a laboratory before implanting it in the woman’s womb. However, creating and implanting a single embryo is expensive and often leads to unsuccessful implantation. Instead, the clinician typically creates an average of seven embryos and selects the healthiest few to implant .
This leaves several unused embryos for every one implanted. The couple can pay a fee to preserve the unused embryos by freezing them or can donate them to another family. Otherwise, they are slated for destruction . A 2011 study in the “Journal of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine” found that 19 percent of the unused embryos are discarded and only 3 percent are donated for scientific research . Many of these embryos could never grow into a living person given the chance because they are not healthy enough to survive past early stages of development . If a human embryo is already destined for destruction or has no chance of survival, scientists have the ethical imperative to use these embryos to research and develop medical treatments that could save lives. The modern version of the Hippocratic oath states, “I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required [to heal]” . Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah supports the pro-life movement, which recognizes early embryos as human individuals. However, even he favors using the leftover embryos for the greater good. “The morality of the situation dictates that these embryos, which are routinely discarded, be used to improve and save lives. The tragedy would be in not using these embryos to save lives when the alternative is that they would be discarded.” 
Alternatives to Embryonic Stem Cells
Although scientists have used embryonic stem cells (ESCs) for promising treatments, they are not ideal, and scientists hope to eliminate the need for them. Primarily, ESCs come from an embryo with different DNA than the patient who will receive the treatment, meaning they are not autologous. ESCs are not necessarily compatible with everyone and could cause the immune system to reject the treatment . The most promising alternative to ESCs are known as induced pluripotent stem cells. In 2008, scientists discovered a way to reprogram human skin cells to embryonic stem cells . Scientists easily obtained these cells from a patient’s skin, converted them into the desired cell type, then transplanted them into the diseased organ without risk of immune rejection . This eliminates any ethical concerns because no embryos are harvested or destroyed in the process. However, induced stem cells have their own risks. Recent studies have shown that they can begin growing out of control and turn into cancer . Several of the first clinical trials with induced stem cells, including one aimed at curing blindness by regenerating a patient’s retinal cells, were halted because potentially cancerous mutations were detected .
Scientists believe that induced stem cells created in a laboratory will one day completely replace embryonic stem cells harvested from human embryos. However, the only way to create perfect replicas of ESCs is to thoroughly understand their structure and function. Scientists still do not completely understand how ESCs work. Why does a stem cell sometimes become a nerve cell, sometimes become a heart cell and other times regenerate to produce another stem cell? How can we tell a stem cell what type of cell to become? To develop a viable alternative to ESCs, scientists must first answer these questions with experiments on ESCs from human embryos. Therefore, extensive embryonic stem cell research today will eliminate the need for embryonic stem cells in the future.
The Biomedical Engineering Society Code of Ethics calls upon engineers to “use their knowledge, skills, and abilities to enhance the safety, health and welfare of the public.”  Stem cell research epitomizes this. Stem cells hold the cure for numerous diseases ranging from spinal cord injuries to organ failure and have the potential to transform modern medicine. Therefore, the donation of human embryos to scientific research falls within most conventional ethical frameworks and should be allowed with minimal restriction.
Because of widespread ignorance about the science behind stem cells, ill-informed opposition has prevented scientists from receiving the funding and support they need to save millions of lives. For example, George W. Bush’s religious opposition to stem cell research resulted in a 2001 law severely limiting government funding for such research . Although most opponents of stem cell research compare the destruction of a human embryo to the death of a living human, the biology of these early embryos is no more human than a plate of skin cells in a laboratory. Additionally, all embryos sacrificed for scientific research would otherwise be discarded and provide no benefit to society. If society better understood the process and potential of embryonic stem cell research, more people would surely support it.
Within the next decade, stem cells will likely provide simple cures for diseases that are currently untreatable, such as Alzheimer’s disease and organ failure . As long as scientists receive support for embryonic stem cell research, stem cell therapies will become commonplace in clinics and hospitals around the world. Ultimately, the fate of this new medical technology lies in the hands of the public, who must support propositions that will continue to allow and expand the impact of embryonic stem cell research.
About the Author
At the time of writing this paper, Jonathan Sussman was a senior at the University of Southern California studying biomedical engineering with an emphasis in biochemistry. He was an undergraduate research assistant in the Graham Lab investigating proteomics of cancer cells and was planning to attend an MD/PhD program.