Benefits and risks associated with the use of stem cells in medicine

Stem cells have great potential for:

  • treating patients with currently untreatable conditions
  • growing organs for transplants
  • medical research

There are clinical, ethical and social issues with their use. These issues will be different for growth and transplant of adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells and therapeutically-cloned stem cells. They will also depend on whether the stem cells are to be used for therapy or research.

It is important to obtain a balanced view. Sometimes, there are no right or wrong answers. Other times there are no answers at all. Some variables which would be considered when discussing stem cells include:

Clinical issues

  • There is no guarantee of how successful these therapies will be, for example in the use of stem cells in healing damage caused by Parkinson's disease.
  • The difficulty in finding suitable stem cell donors.
  • The difficulty in obtaining and storing a patient's embryonic stem cells.
  • Mutations have been observed in stem cells cultured for a number of generations, and some mutated stem cells have been observed to behave like cancer cells.
  • Cultured stem cells could be contaminated with viruses which would be transferred to a patient.

Ethical issues

  • A source of embryonic stem cell is unused embryos produced by in vitro fertilisation.
  • For therapeutic cloning, is it right to create embryos for therapy, and destroy them in the process?
  • Embryos could come to be viewed as a commodity, and not as an embryo that could develop into a person.
  • At what stage of its development should an embryo be regarded as, and treated as, a person?

Social issues

  • Educating the public about what stem cells can, and can't do, is important.
  • Whether the benefits of stem cell research use outweigh the objections.
  • Much of the research is being carried out by commercial clinics, so reported successes are not subject to peer review.
  • Patients could be exploited by paying for expensive treatments and being given false hope of a cure as stem cell therapies are only in their developmental stages.
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