Multiple Sclerosis Society
Researchers hope that stem cell research will lead to therapies to treat disease or repair damaged tissue. But as with all science, this research raises as many questions as there are answers. The use of stem cells raises complex ethical issues which continue to be widely debated. This page provides a short introduction to the scientific and moral questions.
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What are stem cells and where do they come from?
Stem cells are unique, firstly because they can keep reproducing themselves, and secondly because they have the potential to develop into many different types of cell - from kidney cells, to brain cells to skin.
Stem cells are found in large numbers in embryos and some parts of the foetus (e.g. in umbilical cord blood) and in much smaller numbers in adult tissue. Researchers still don't know which source is the best.
Some think embryonic stem cells (ESCs) hold more promise because they have the potential to give rise to every type of cell in the body. These cells are also easier to isolate and grow in the laboratory.
Others think adult stem cells (ASCs) have important advantages, even though they can only develop into a few cell types. ASCs are less likely to form a tumour after transplant. It might also be possible to use stem cells isolated from an individual patient. These cells would not then be rejected by the person's immune system. Using ASCs also avoids the ethical problems of researching on human embryos.
Why are stem cells important?
If it were possible to grow any type of cell in the laboratory, they could be used to treat the damage caused by injury or disease. It is very unlikely that stem cells will be used to grow whole organs like a kidney, but transplants of cells might be able to repair patches of damage. For example, nerve cells could be used to repair spinal injuries or treat Parkinson's disease; pancreas cells could be used to treat diabetes and heart cells could be used to repair the damage caused by a heart attack.
What are the ethical issues?
Few people are concerned about research on ASCs. However, some people believe that using human embryos for research is unethical on the grounds that human embryos have a right to life from the moment of conception. They would not like to see any research on ESCs. Others believe that it would be morally wrong to stop this kind of research, because it has the potential alleviate the suffering of many people.
The law in the UK takes the middle ground. It allows research to go ahead, but recognises that embryos have special status, and puts restrictions on what type of research can be carried out. Researchers need a license to do this work. So far only two laboratories in the UK have been given permission. They work on cells that have come from unused embryos following IVF. These cells can only be used for research if both parents' give consent.
What is the status of current stem cell research?
The majority of stem cell research is based on animal cells. It is still trying to answer fundamental questions like:
In theory, stem cells could be used to grow:
It will be very many years before stem cell treatments become a reality. A lot more research still needs to be done. In particular, researchers still need to solve problems like:
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