Stem cell research has long been the subject of controversy in the political climate of the United States. The battle between ethics and science didn’t start with stem cells, however. It has lasted for thousands of years, and yet science always finds a way.
Thanks to advances in modern technology, scientists are now capable of engineering stem cells on their own, without requiring fetal tissue or samples from dying individuals.
The Controversial Birth of Stem Cell Technology
Recombinant DNA was discovered in the 1970s and soon incorporated into gene therapies of all kinds. But what can you do when somebody’s DNA simply doesn’t allow them to create more of a particular cell vital for life and transplants aren’t an option?
This dilemma caused scientists to turn to stem cells, which are cells capable of transforming themselves into other kinds of cells seemingly based on the body’s demand. However, when scientists first discovered human stem cells in 1998, they could only extract them from human embryos.
This meant that no stem cells could be used in medical treatments or even researched without sacrificing the life of a human embryo, a trade that many people found egregious and revolting.
Modern Solutions to the Stem Cell Ethics Crisis
As of 2006, the stem cell debate has reached a much more ethical level of science. Scientists are now capable of stimulating a patient’s own body to produce stem cells in a quasi-natural process similar to that by which humans are developed.
More recently, however, scientists and healthcare professionals in 2017 managed to use lab-grown, genetically engineered stem cells to save the life of a patient with a crippling and deadly disorder known as epidermolysis bullosa.
These lab-grown tissues helped the patient regrow his skin and muscle cells in a way that proved vital for not only treating the symptoms of this potentially fatal disorder, but also paved the path to a cure.
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In the 2000s, the political climate of the United States was marked by a tortured struggle between ethics and science.
One side of the debate believed that the benefits of extracting stem cells from human embryos far outweighed the costs of fetal death, whereas the other side believed that even one dead fetus was too steep a price for the benefit of scientific research on practices that might not even work.
As of 2019, we now know that these stem cell technologies not only work as well as the pro-research side once claimed, but also can be lab-grown in a way that satisfies the ethical complaints and assuages the technological fears of the pro-fetus side of the argument.
Even still, the battle between ethics and science roils on. Though, thanks to biological engineering, stem cell research is no longer considered as taboo and unethical as it once was.
Who knows what’s next to come, but if it follows this evolutionary track, it’s sure to be even more ethical and effective than it is now.
For a detailed timeline of American public policy as it relates to stem cell research, click here.