When did the bioethical-regenerative medicine debate begin? Is it still in force today? Although stem cell therapies have received more attention over the last several years, the truth is that stem cell therapy is not new. Doctors performed the first bone marrow stem cell transplant a half century ago. But in 1998, when researchers discovered how to extract stem cells from human embryos the bioethical debate began.
Before we delve into what is being debated, it is necessary to understand the terms being discussed. What is bioethics? Bioethics is a comprehensive, close examination of ethical issues in the fields of health care, health science, and health policy. Ethical standards exist in each of these fields, but reexamination and discussion of these standards happens on a revolving basis to ensure the fair and just execution of treatments and research.
When it comes to regenerative medicine, on one side you have huge excitement for the potential of stem cells for curing all manner of diseases and conditions. But on the other side exists the controversial fact human embryos are used for research purposes. When stem cell science first emerged, the political leaders of the day were suddenly faced with a new bioethical dilemma involving the human embryonic stem (hES) cells research/funding. Embryonic stem cell research calls into question two moral principles: 1) The duty to prevent or alleviate suffering; and 2) The duty to respect the value of human life. Both sides of the debate are interested in protecting human life, so why are views so different? This is a debate that is ongoing, but in 2006, scientists wrapped up in the bioethics of stem cell research got a big break. Scientists learned how to engineer a patient’s own cells to behave like hES cells and called them Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells or iPSCs.
However, the bioethical debate didn’t stop in 2006. It is alive and healthy in 2017. Why? Because some human embryos will still be needed for research. iPSCs are not the same as hES cells. Human embryonic stem cells still offer vital controls for the research environment.
iPSCs also introduced a new bioethical concern. Cloning. iPSCs carry the potential to develop into a human embryo; a clone of the donor. While some will argue that existing regulations will prevent cloning from having, that isn’t to say that it couldn’t/wouldn’t still happen.
Another hot debate in the biomedical field of regenerative medicine concerns how the field gets its funding. Is it fair to call on taxpayers to help pay for funding that they don’t ethically support? If the federal government distributes billions of dollars annually for biomedical research that isn’t supported by some it could cause a real maelstrom.
Policy-makers are faced with tough decisions about how to regulate other, non hES pluripotent stem cell research while still supporting the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights which states: “…Based on the freedom of science and research, scientific and technological developments have been, and can be, of great benefit to humankind in increasing inter alia life expectancy and improving quality of life, and emphasizing that such developments should always seek to promote the welfare of individuals, families, groups or communities and humankind as a whole in the recognition of the dignity of the human person and the universal respect for, and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Many people shy away from regenerative medicine because some branches of this science-based medicine involve the use of embryonic stem cells. But as time is proving, with better technology and research, scientists are learning how to grow human organs and tissues without the use of embryonic stem cells.
Regenerative medicine offers a multitude of health benefits. With respect to nature and life, regenerative medicine holds the potential to cure many health problems. Consider the following list provided by the National Institute of Health concerning the benefits of regenerative medicine:
Scientists and those suffering from certain diseases and conditions get excited about the potential applications for stem cells. Consider the following uses for stem cells: 1) Hair, retina and nerve regeneration; 2) Skin, cartilage, bone and tooth regeneration; 3) Heart, liver, brain tissue regeneration; and 4) Macular degeneration prevention. Not to mention a multitude of diseases and conditions that could benefit from stem cell applications.
While the bioethical debate surrounding regenerative medicine isn’t over, scientists and technology continue to make strides that will hopefully bring opposing sides into harmony over the future of the stem cell field and countless people who could benefit from it.