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To use stem-cells or not? That is the debate

Every week or so, two pairs of students pit their wits against their classmates in an early-morning debate in front of the whole school to debate a pressing topical or ethical issue. The practice is inspired by the famous Oxford Union.

One of the most compelling topics in the second half of this term was: Should we use embryonic stem-cells for medical research?Although a technical topic, aimed at those students following the Pathway to university courses in Bio-Medicine, it proved a thought-provoking ethical issue for all.

Emily Törner (IB Year 1) was asked to present the arguments for stem-cell research:

I learned a lot more about ethical issues that can arise with everything we do, especially in science. I normally never think about the ethical issues when talking about science but only about the scientific possibilities, so it was nice to talk about it and to research about the different opinions. I also generally agree with everything that scientists do and I agree with everything they do. So I think it was good for me to research about this and also to listen to different argument from the opposite opinion.

My arguments were:

  • There are cases where the embryo is going to be destroyed anyways, so it’s more efficient to use it. One example for that is IVF (artificial fertilization), in which large numbers of unused embryos are being created, many of whose are slated for destruction, therefore it’s better to utilize them. Abortions are also legal in many countries and here it would also be better to use the embryos and not destroy them.
  • Embryos aren’t human life yet, because they are incapable of existing outside of the womb. Also, 18% of the zygotes don’t implant after conception, that means that more embryos are lost due to chance than stem cell research. Blastocysts, which embryos are made of, are a cluster of non-differentiated cells that are no more “human” than a single skin cell. Many parties also believe that human life only starts with the heartbeat in the 5th.
  • Embryonic stem cells are more useful in treatments than adult stem cells. Only minor populations of adult stem cells exist, while embryonic stem cells are easier to isolate and it’s easier to grow them in a way that’s useful for treatment. Embryonic stem cells are also not limited in the number of divisions they can make and divide more rapidly than adult stem cells, so it’s easier to produce large numbers of stem cells. They can also diversify into many different cells, which makes them better suited for treating a wide range of diseases. Adult stem cells also might not be able to treat genetic disorders, embryonic stem cells can actually be used to treat those diseases. DNA abnormalities in adult stem cells caused by toxins and sunlight also make them poorly suited for treatment, too.

Anna Julia Trento Bezerra (IB Year 1) was asked to present the arguments against stem-cell research:

The debate opened my eyes to points of view that I have never thought about. Before doing research, I used to be in favour of the use of stem cells to treat diseases because I believed that this was the best efficient option. However, when I discovered that it is possible to use other types of cell if money is invested in research, then, I switched sides to support those news researches which can avoid moral issues. (Anna Julia)

These were my arguments against the use of stem cells to treat diseases:

  • Embryonic Stem cells are not the only way to cure some diseases, neither is it the greater promise. Researchers using adult stem cells are 20-30 years ahead of the ones using embryonic stem cells, partly because embryonic stem cells are used to the environment of a growing embryo, and are likely to form tumours or be rejected by the patient’s immunological system.
  • Thousands of humans have already been cured by adult stem cells. It is already possible to use bone marrow cells to repair scar tissue of the heart after a heart attack.
  • There is a vast potential and enough technology to turn adult stem cells into pluripotent ones, which, therefore, would have the same effect in treating disease as embryonic. Moreover, it can be possible, in the future, to use chemicals, hormones, or elements from the cytoplasm of a woman’s egg to reprogram a somatic cell by nuclear transfer, a process called de-differentiation, and turn it into an embryonic stem cell, all that it is needed is money to be invested.
  • Then, if there is an effective way to treat diseases without using embryonic stem cells, which means a way without moral issues involved, then, it is the best way to follow. Add to it, it is undeniable that any type of human life or even anything that can be considered a human life by part of the population is more worth it than money.

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