Medical Marvel, Ethical Minefield

“The stem cell debate has led scientists and nonscientists alike to contemplate profound issues, such as who we are and what makes us human beings.”​—NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, U.S.A.

KAREN has Type 1 diabetes. Her diseased pancreas no longer produces insulin. Now imagine if Karen could go to a doctor and have new cells, specially cultured in a laboratory, transplanted into her body to replace damaged pancreatic cells. As these new cells became functional, Karen could gradually discontinue insulin therapy and return to normal health.

Until recent times such potential cures would have sounded like science fiction, but now some researchers believe that they are a possibility. Why so? Because in 1998, scientists found a way to culture large numbers of cells called human stem cells. These stem cells can grow to become almost any of the over two hundred different types of cells found in the human body, including pancreatic cells. *

According to a report prepared by the National Institutes of Health in the United States, “stem cells may hold the key to replacing cells lost in many devastating diseases.” These include “Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, chronic heart disease, end-stage kidney disease, liver failure, and cancer,” to name just a few. Stem cells can also give rise to blood, and they may even make blood banks obsolete, it is claimed. In fact, doctors have been using stem cells for many years to treat certain blood disorders. These treatments have usually involved transplantation of bone marrow, which is rich in blood-forming stem cells, but now doctors prefer to harvest stem cells taken from circulating blood. Because stem-cell therapies hold promise of regenerating healthy new tissues, they come under the general designation “regenerative medicine.”

Certain aspects of this fledgling science, however, are highly controversial. Many people, including a number of scientists, feel that the exploitation of human stem cells​—particularly those derived from either embryos or fetuses—​shows a disregard for the sanctity of human life. The issue has become so hot, in fact, that it has been likened to an ‘ethical and political minefield.’

Because stem cell advocates predict miracle cures for a host of conditions, the following articles take a closer look at the different kinds of stem cells, how they are derived, and why the subject is so controversial.


^ par. 4 Separate laboratories in the United States cultured two kinds of stem cells​—human embryonic stem cells and human embryonic germ cells.