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Ethical Problems of Human Embryonic Stem Cell use in Scientific Research

Updated on December 19, 2015
Human stem cells made using Dolly cloning technique. (Artist rendition)
Human stem cells made using Dolly cloning technique. (Artist rendition) | Source

Introduction to Stem Cell Use

The destruction of human embryos to derive stem cells has long been a question of ethical principles. A host of new laws and regulations have been established since the beginnings of stem cell research more than 50 years ago (McLaren 2007). Debates have ranged from the importance of the research being conducted, to the moral status of the human embryo as it develops. When it comes to the question of ethics on this topic, an informed public and equally understanding scientists is the recipe for proper and well-conducted research.

Dolly Cloning Technique

Human stem cells made using Dolly cloning technique.
Human stem cells made using Dolly cloning technique. | Source

Cell Types

Multiple sites for the culture of stem cells exist, and some are considered to be more ethical means of obtaining stem cells than others. For example, umbilical cord blood can be collected in some parts of the globe using various types of consent that include collection at the time of delivery and further consent to collect and bank the blood. This method, however, raises other questions regarding the testing to make sure the collected sample is free from diseases such as HIV, hepatitis so they do not cause harm to recipients. The ethical concern there being that should a disease be found, should the parents have access to that information even if nothing can be done to treat the disorder (Sugarman, 2008)?

Another type of harvesting can be done from the bone marrow. Blood stem cells are found in the bone marrow and are extracted from the rear hip bone. This type of harvesting is considered a less ethically immoral way of collecting. There is no destruction of embryos involved, however the concern is for the donor who might be asked to donate to a relative but does not feel comfortable doing so due to an underlying condition that the family may not know about. Such issues are less related to improper ethics as direct embryonic cell culturing is (Sugarman, 2008).

Adipocytes, hepatocytes, and skin cells can also be cultured. These cells are termed induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). The use of iPS cells might be one of the most ethical ways of culturing stem cells. The issues surrounding consent and culturing are manageable and can easily be explained to a patient. The ethics issues arising here are explaining to a patient that their cells may be used to generate immortalized cell line, undergo genetic manipulations and be transferred to other facilities. The extent to which identifiable information about the original donor is kept also needs to be explained to the patient or alternately, elimination of personally identifiable information from the cell line can resolve that issue (Sugarman, 2008). Although it is easier to develop iPS cells than it is hESC cells, there are also complications in the development process including the tendency of iPS cells to tumorgenesis and possibility of immune rejection caused by the aberration of genetic integrity (Jung 2011).

How Do Stem Cells Work

Dates of Derivation

In the United States, no federally funded institution can use human ES cells. If the cells were derived before August 9, 2001 only then may they be used for research. Disregarding individual and cultural views, scientists view the consensus of hES cell use from a developmental standpoint. The “value” of the embryo increases as it continues to develop. Couples opting for in vitro fertilization may choose to donate the embryo if certain medical complications occur such as failure to adhere to the uterine cell wall. In that case the development of the embryo is not far along and donation can be an option for some. An issue being raised is the alternative to donating is destruction of the cells under conditions in which they cannot grow. In this manner the cells never have a chance to be used for research which could help alleviate future human suffering (McLaren 2007).

Stem Cell Differentiation

How a stem cell differentiates into various tissue types
How a stem cell differentiates into various tissue types | Source

Types of Research

Anne McLaren states, in her article, the views of scientists who use donated human embryos in their research. According to the article these scientists view the cells in a special light knowing that they came from humans. The idea is to use them to conduct meaningful research as opposed to trivial or research just for knowledge’s sake.

Some types of research such as reproductive cloning, is prohibited by laws in many countries because of the issues involved if they would be deemed safe to use in our own species. Similarly, modification of nuclear genes is prohibited in many places. This involves modifying genes to produce transgenic human embryos. Such a technique is of ethical debate because it is risky and impossible at the present time to replace defective human genes with normally functioning ones (McLaren 2007).

Stem cells are used in a variety of research
Stem cells are used in a variety of research | Source

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Multiple Factors to Consider

The ethical issue of using human embryonic stem cells for research needs to be treated with informed care. Questions go beyond just the destruction of the embryo and many factors such as the type of research being conducted, obtaining consent, and how the cells are being used need to be taken into consideration. Stem cell use presents researchers with a lot of potential to innovate thus scientists need to be aware of the ethical issues so the research can be conducted in an appropriate manner and guidelines followed. Similarly, the scientists conducting the research should make an effort to translate to the public the nature of their research so that an informed public can make a sound decision based on facts rather than the initial scare factor.

Funding Approved for Different Types of Stem Cells

Where stem cells derive from determines funding for the research. Only a handful of ongoing studies in the world (two as of 2014) use human embryonic stem cells.
Where stem cells derive from determines funding for the research. Only a handful of ongoing studies in the world (two as of 2014) use human embryonic stem cells. | Source

Issues to Consider

  • The type of stem cell being used
  • The date of derivation
  • Type of research being conducted
  • Human versus animal stem cells


Jung, J. W., Jang S. H., Ha Y. H. The use of pluripotent stem cell for personalized cell therapies against neurological disorders. Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology. 2011; 2011

McLaren A. A Scientist’s View of the Ethics of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. J. Stem. 2007; 23-26

Sugarman J. Human stem cell ethics: beyond the embryo. J. Stem. 2008: 530-533


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