Stem Cell Ethics — Antidote for Answers

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying” — Woody Allen.

We live for an immortal life, leaving behind legacies, whether that be within our own homes, museums, galleries or simply names carved into the ground. We live in the pretense of unachievable immortality, a hoax of what we wish for, but if you could be the last man on Earth, would you take that chance? This is not the first time the question of immortality has been pulled up and it is not the last time either, for as long as humanity lives on, so will an immortal legacy. Think about it, imagine you live till 80 years old, would you want to live longer? Maybe you have gone through all the ups and downs of life, felt success and contentment, the despair brought on by the catastrophe known as the human race, would you want to live longer in that case? Probably not, when you have uncovered all that life can offer, there is not much left to hope for or live for in that matter. However, what if you suffered with Parkinson’s disease? Or diabetes? Or maybe even cancer? Would you not want to live longer then? Fight against the laws of mortality, to push beyond the ropes that have caged you to a limited life. Since the 19th century, scientists have been studying the use of stem cells from humans, to plants and, to mice, in search for cures for these terminal diseases. If you were attacked with one of the world’s deadliest and incurable diseases, one would question how far you would go in search for a cure. Would you search the darkest corners of the Earth, become the maddest scientist of them all or succumb to the illness itself? It was these kinds of questions, which drove Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch to the era of the immortal cell. Yet, this concept so new and vague struck the minds of thousands; doctors, scientists, industries and especially riled religious devotees. Were stem cells the answers to years of disputed prayers or was there more to come? The answer came merely years later, when many other scientists began to focus on Till and McCulloch’s work, in the 1980s, where a simple discovery became the antidote to centuries of illnesses.

Introduction: Historical Period — 1980s

Throughout time, the interconnection which history and science play with each other proves to be an exceptional beginning to many of the most life altering discoveries — theory of relativity, penicillin, insulin, and the concept of DNA (Life-Changing Science Discoveries). So how does this make sense? How was history really able to influence science? Taking a step back into world of the 1980s, an era so glamorous and exciting you could not help but wish you were a part of it as well. Till and McCulloch, residing in Canada but recognized worldwide, were a dynamic duo, what many would call the fathers of stem cell research, the flame to the fire and legends who revolutionized the field of molecular biology. Dr. James Till and Dr. Ernest McCulloch born in the 1930s, just after the “Roaring Twenties” had an exceptional start within the scientific field. Directly after such a brilliant era (1920s), the possibilities awaiting them were unless.

Unlike the 1880s, where many scientists did not have the opportunity to work with advanced technology, the 1980s was a time of technological innovation and a great movement forward within human society. A prolific period for new inventions and improvements to existing technology that had a major impact on the way people lived. During this time period, ideas and inventions which scientists had been working on for years came out of the development stage and entered people’s lives for the first time. During this particular time period, the infamous Space Shuttle (1981) was invented by NASA, the first Mobile Phone and (1983) by DynaTAC 8000x and the IBM and Macintosh Personal Computers in 1984. Taking a look at these inventions back then, could you imagine a world without them now? Probably not, it was these inventions that pushed the human race forward to where we are today. It was these kinds of inventions that changed both human history and science forever. This was a time of great economic boom, technological advancement and above all, a change in medical history. Imagine moving in slow-motion, watching the world around you with trepidation, wondering what would happen next, what could really happen in a world that was not moving forward? Now, imagine chaos erupting, people bustling, lights flashing, computers whirring and clicking, music in the air and the feel of something new, something spectacular awaiting to happen — this was the 1980s.

Although a prospering era, the 1980s were still heavily plagued by human illnesses, spreading at every corner, there was no escape from the loss of human life. It was in the early 1980s, where the advent of AIDS occurred. However, many had faith that the scientific technology invented during that time period would save them from this devastating illness, yet, no hope came. It was one of those situations, where even the most prestigious could not escape from, AIDS became the fear for humanity. Not only this, but this decade was marked by many other illnesses as well such as Alzheimer’s disease. More importantly, as the population increased in the 1980s, so did the frequency and severity of the memory-robbing Alzheimer’s disease, which received increasing attention both in the medical community and the media. Clearly, people were suffering, scientists and healthcare providers were speechless, what could they have done to stop this? No antidote, no medical treatment or vaccines were probable solutions. Yet, a miracle was announced, on a dreary evening in 1981, Till and McCulloch announced the findings of transplantable stem cells, an answer to the prayers of helpless people struggling with these “incurable” diseases.

The Beginning: Importance of Stem Cell Research

Stem cells became what many would call the “it” thing, a concept so new to science that scientists could not help but be enthralled by it. It was like their new toy in the laboratory, if you were given the choice to possibly save millions, would you let the opportunity slip or would you continue to push forward towards perhaps the biggest breakthrough in your entire lifetime?

Stem cells perform like superheroes, having the flexibility and likelihood of “superpowers”, developing into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. They represent an exciting area in medicine because of their potential to regenerate and repair damaged tissue, while duplicating without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell. Within Pop Culture, entertainment movies such as “The Matrix” touch upon similarities to stem cells. Where the agent clones perform quite similar to stem cells, as they have the ability to make multiple copies of themselves, again and again and again, each starting out as the same stem cell but later developing into other specialized cells for their specific tasks. Stem cells primarily come from two main sources: embryos (embryonic stem cells) and adult tissue (adult stem cells). However, in the 1980s, the use of adult stem cells was first utilized in efforts to achieve human sustainability. Adult stem cells (also known as somatic stem cells), exist throughout the body, subsequent to embryonic development, and unlike embryonic stem cells which can only be found within the blastula of an embryo, can be found throughout various tissues within our bodies. These stem cells have been found in tissues such as the brain, bone marrow, blood, blood vessels, skeletal muscles, skin, and the liver. Decades later, in 2006, researchers made another breakthrough by identifying conditions that would allow some specialized adult cells to be “reprogrammed” genetically to assume a stem cell-like state. However, one of the many problems is that they remain in a quiescent or non-dividing state for years until activated by disease or tissue injury. Not only this, but adult stem cells also tend to have restrictions to their dividing powers — their ability to differentiate lacks based on their tissue of origin — this tends to become a large issue for patients that require specific cell types within their bodies and thus cannot be used to their maximum potential.

It was for these very reasons that scientists lost interest very soon in adult stem cells and became inspired to find something more, something with greater satisfaction than just the adult stem cell. Yet, what else was left to find? Nothing seemed interesting or new, causing Till and McCulloch’s research to die down as time stretched onwards. After some pondering, and some contemplation and even some more consideration, scientists built off from Till and McCulloch’s research, discovering that embryo fragmentation can result in the use of embryonic stem cells formed in the blastula of the cell. This was it, the new “it” thing that scientists began to go haywire over, with greater division powers than the human adult stem cell, embryonic stem cells became the world’s newest major breakthrough. To this day, it has been uncovered that embryonic stem cells are cells derived from a four- or five-day-old human embryo that is in the blastocyst phase of development They start in the embryo as unprogrammed cells, then become specialized to create bone, muscle, skin, the heart, the brain, and over 250 other types of specialized cells. Stimulating the body to heal itself, they push the human race forward with an indomitable repairing mechanism. Think of your skin. The tissue in your skin needs constant renewal that could not take place without stem cells. Or muscle — stem cells in your muscles are what repair damaged tissue when you are injured. Imagine if you did not have these stem cells? Imagine if this discovery would not have been made? Think about how many lives would be lost from a single scrape or injury, think about dying from something as simple as a paper cut. We are an unstoppable race, residing on the Earth for over 200, 000 years, yet we could die from a simple injury if not equipped with these cells? Our body functions like a machine, thousands of engines, chemical reactions and billions of miniature robot-like cells repairing and attending to our every need. Stem cells are just one of these miniature robot-like cells, they perform their specific tasks and work day and night the more you push your body. Since the 1980s, this research has only grown in millions, stem cells even decades later are still the “it” thing, controversial due to their origin but infinite due to their power.

In the past 20 years, significant new discoveries have emerged — breakthroughs that the original discoverers of stem cells never dreamed about Researchers are finding new ways to use stem cells to rebuild tissue in many parts of the body where it has been damaged, such as the eye, the pancreas and the brain. Some revolutionary treatments for blindness, MS, stroke and spinal cord injury are already in early stage clinical trials. It seems that dreams of immortality by thousands may just come true, that our enduring dream of a longer life lasts longer than our limited lifelines, that we can in fact live beyond in longevity.

Think About Perspective: Scientists, Health Providers and Religious Devotees

Think a couple years back when you were a kid and remember those generic science kits you could get for around 11 bucks at the nearest department store. Most often ripped open with pieces scattered across the living room, evidence of attempted experiments, both successful and downright failures. Well, this is how stem cell research really began, attempted experiments both successful and failures. The scientists were children at heart, their new toy known as embryonic stem cells. It was a revolutionary movement, one that even religion could not stop. These very scientists and researchers were interested in stem cells for several reasons. Although stem cells do not serve any one function, many have the capacity to serve any function after they are instructed to specialize. Every cell in the body, for example, is derived from first few stem cells formed in the early stages of embryological development. Therefore, stem cells extracted from embryos can be induced to become any desired type. This facility makes stem cells powerful enough to regenerate damaged tissue under the right conditions. As humans we study the unknown, our curiosity screaming louder than the fear in our minds, we push towards impossible goals. Our child-like behaviours result in the greatest of findings. Think about Robert Burns Woodward, the father of Organic Chemistry — a boy-genius unlike any other. He did not spend hours in the laboratory working endlessly, he spent hours as a kid building chemistry kits. He was known as an autodidact who always had a passion for chemistry. While most kids participated in playing with games and toys, Woodward would take his chemistry sets; adding more reagents, gathering other instructions including those derived from a college-level textbook and simply “play”. Scientists perform similarly, it is not always their ravenous capitalist minds, but really true enjoyment at heart that pushes them forward in the work they do. As supporters to a building society, many of their interests lay in helping those suffering around them, while receiving appreciation for their work. We wish to be appreciated for our work, for the world to know about our legacies, to not only leave behind ashes and pen marks, but a meaning to our names, engraved forever in the books of history. We are people of words, achievements and teamwork. However, scientists were unappreciated for their hard work and the countless hours they put into lengthening the time humanity faces on this Earth. Once upon a time, stem cells seemed like a dream, an body function so unknown to us, we could not help but question its very existence. Yet, here we are, decades later, combating diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease (an illness that affects over 10 million people all over the world) and especially cancer, a disease the human population has been dealing with for centuries. The research conducted on that very day in 1981, has allowed scientists to move forward in attempts to treat and understand various diseases, grow new cells in a laboratory to replace damaged organs or tissues, correct parts of organs that don’t work properly, research causes of genetic defects in cells, research how diseases occur or why certain cells develop into cancer cells and test new drugs for safety and effectiveness. It was a very simple idea that started the flame to the fire, a revolution with the single intent to help society. This research conducted by these scientists is not for themselves, but for all of humanity. For we are the people of success and failed experiments, for we are the people of words and achievements, all young scientists at heart.

Certainly, it is the scientists that fashion these findings, but it is the health providers that bring them to your very doorstep. When you see the words “futuristic healthcare” what do you envision? Quite possibly a whole lot of robots walking around as doctors, tending to your every need. Or maybe, it’s incredible medications that give you phenomenal abilities, but the real question is, would you take the blue pill that lets you live forever? Or the red pill that allows you to disintegrate your enemies within the blink of an eye? Or maybe you have no imagination and do not envision anything. When Till and McCulloch first began their research, their initial thought could have possibly been “let’s try this out and see where it gets us”, not “we’re about to save millions of people, could we get any better?”. A great many science endeavors start out as an idea, eventually growing into something more substantial. A train of wildly placed thoughts become fodder for the inquisitive mind . It was Till and McCulloch’s insane idea that causes health providers in our day to see hope of regenerative medicine and moving lab treatments straight to your very own bedside. Two major organizations: the Ontario Stem Cell Initiative (OSCI) and the Centre for Commercialization of Regenerative Medicine (CCRM) have come together to bring together researchers, clinicians and bioengineers together. Thus providing the capacity to turn their regenerative medical discoveries into economic opportunities. The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto provides a perfect example, where researchers there have found that metformin, a drug used to treat Type 2 diabetes, can stimulate stem cells to produce new brain cells. Dr. Janet Rossant, the interim director, under the project of bringing forth regenerative medicine states,

“Developments in neuro repair and other areas will improve the lives of people battling disease in incremental steps. We won’t see the ‘big wins,’ or cures, right away but they are not far off — maybe just five years in some cases”.

Pushing stem cell research forward can help doctors and healthcare contributors provide their patients with the medical equipment and support they need as they struggle to cope with these illnesses. Not only this, but think about all the times you have gotten sick and have had to travel back and forth between the doctor’s office and home. When diagnosed with a serious disease such as Alzheimer’s or diabetes, this becomes very tedious and stressful. Growing up pretty much takes away the right to that lollipop you would always receive when you visited the doctors with your parents, turning a sweet checkup into a bitter pill. We do not always enjoy going to the doctors, and when this becomes a repetitive task, we would rather bury ourselves than drive the extra mile to add onto our health bills. However, think about the chances of having all your medication at the tips of your fingers, more importantly, right at your bedside. How effective would that be? Incredible right! Having the ability to move lab treatments straight to your room could allow you to have more fun spending your savings on that video game, new car, or even a new home . Like they say, “save money, live better”. Stem cells are easy to access, research and transport, allowing them to be used extensively within the healthcare system. When healthcare companies such as CCRM, see commercial potential in a scientific breakthrough, they take steps to get the discovery from the lab to the bedside. To attract the investment needed to make that happen, CCRM has established relationships across the biotech sector. CEO Michael May says his organization wants to create new companies on the promise of science. The potential to move medications straight to a patient’s bedside allows medical providers to think of even greater technological innovations: reversing diseases, nanotechnology to attack foreign viruses and cells, or even lengthening telomeres to extend lives. We so often search for answers to support our convictions. However, the real question is: would you choose the blue pill for stem cell research to saves billions of lives, or would you choose the red pill in attempt to stop what few religions determine a wasteful abomination to humanity?

Regardless of their importance in creating an artificially immortal race, stem cells are yet a controversial topic due to religious perspectives. God, the almighty creator of all life plays a large role in the lives of many individuals. Not only providing hope to the hopeless, but a pillar for those who need support when nothing is left. However, stem cell research becomes one of the many obstacles separating science ideals and God. Should we choose to follow the Almighty? Or should we force our own destinies by self creating the immortal race God did not make us into at the beginning? Several religions believe the interference played with the genome involves an act of ‘playing God’. This argument reflects the view that divine creation is perfect and that it is inappropriate to alter it in any way. The idea of ‘playing God’ also carries with it the proposition that there is knowledge that may be too dangerous for mankind to know. As humans, we tend to surpass boundaries, forgetting our limitations. These actions could allow us to believe we are invincible, yet we forget limitations and attempt to produce the perfect race, the greatest race, regardless of the consequences. When looking at certain religions such as Judaism and Islam, they contain similarities when discussing attempts to help others. If you were passing by someone in need of help due to their serious injuries, would you stand by and watch? Or would you try and lend a helping hand? As humans we are compassionate creatures, we try to help those in need to the best of our abilities regardless of our losses. Within both Judaism and Islam, certain methods of stem cell research is extremely forbidden, yet when helping another individual stem cells are allowed in order to save a life. Think of it as a motto: “do whatever you wish, as long as you are saving a life”, maybe even listen to the song “How To Save a Life” by The Fray in the background as you repeat this. While taking a look at other religions such as Catholic and Hinduism, they both believe no embryonic stem cell research should be conducted at all. If it is not naturally induced by God himself, then it should be avoided. This view in the future may be flexible to Catholics and Hindus with injuries, but only if embryonic stem cell research does lead to discoveries and cures for injuries and diseases such as nervous system injuries. Stem cell research still proves to be a very controversial issue, where many tend to struggle with their views due to religious and ethical perspectives. What would you do to save the life of another, take a shot at playing God? Or leave it to the Almighty to deal with, despite the darkening guilt in your mind?

Conclusion: What’s Your Perspective?

Who is to say what lies in the impending future? Possible catastrophe? Immortality? Reversible diseases? Or even, the healthcare services of a lifetime? As humans, we have no control over the challenges we face, living in despair or contentment is a decision that at times, we have no control over. The future of stem cell research is inevitable, despite it’s incredible progress, in a matter of years all research could be shut down if religious and ethical aspects have their way. Yet, something we can never forget, regardless of the times that pass is the incredibly hard work and dedication scientists such as Till and McCulloch have put into creating an invincible race. Sure, their legacies may not have struck the souls of millions, but it has changed the lives of thousands all over the world, providing them with hope when none can be found. This represents the epitome of human reassurance and dependability. Maybe one day Woody Allen’s words will come true; maybe one day we will not have to achieve immortality not by our names engraved on a piece of paper but instead through living forever, never dying, an immortal life. Now think about it again: if you lived till 80 years old, would you want to live longer?