What are embryonic stem cells?
Stem cells have the ability to become any other type of cell that the body needs. Embryonic stem cells are taken from embryos. Unlike adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells can be programmed to create multiple copies of any type of cell in the body that is required; adult stem cells can only recreate a small number of cells.
Generally speaking, research is carried out on human embryonic stem cells, but depending on the particular project, stem cells from animals can also be harnessed for use. The embryos that stem cells are taken from are created via the use of in-vitro fertilisation; they are the embryos that are discarded when successful pregnancy occurs and donated to science with the informed consent of the parents.
What are embryonic stem cells used for?
There are many uses for embryonic stem cells in scientific research, including:
- Helping us to further understand how we grow and develop inside the womb, including how birth defects can occur.
- Allowing us to see how cells themselves develop, both normally and abnormally, therefore improving medical diagnoses and treatments.
- They may eventually enable us to create tissue and organs to replace those that have been severely damaged thanks to diseases like liver cirrhosis. If this was achieved, it would also mean that they could be used in treatment of conditions relating to the heart, spine and brain.
- Embryonic stem cells can be used to help test the potency of drugs and medications, as well as help scientists to look for new ones.
- They may also be able to help us understand how cells become defective, thus causing diseases and illnesses to occur in the first place.
What are the ethics around using embryonic stem cells?
Understandably there is concern over the ethics of using stem cells taken from embryos, particularly now that scientists are able to create them for the specific purpose of research; whereas previously, leftover embryos from in-vitro fertilisation efforts were donated. The argument is that it is morally wrong to create a life for the sole purpose of experimenting on it and the moral rights of the embryo to exist, as found in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, have been used to back this up.
On the other side of the debate, it is clear to see the many advantages of embryonic stem cell research and many lives will be saved thanks to such work. It is also important to note that embryos that have been created for research purposes will never be implanted in a womb, meaning that a life cannot be created.