Swedish scientists from Lund University have found that stem cell treatment can be used to heal the damage in the brain caused by Parkinson’s disease. The disease, which affects body control and movement, is caused by loss of nerve cells which control the chemical dopamine – essential for these cognitive functions. Parkinson’s UK have come out to say that the research is at a very early stage, but the news is a welcome breakthrough for advocates of stem cell research.
One of the reasons that stem cell research is only now becoming a viable research technique is the ethical issues which have surrounded it for so many years. Up until 2007, stem cell research used tissue from aborted embryos to obtain material to study. This obviously posed an ethical dilemma as it involved obtaining aborted foetuses for scientific use, a process which caused significant outrage. Thankfully, in the last 7 years stem cell researchers have started using a new technique called Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPS). This method allows scientists to obtain the cells they need, without the need for an aborted embryo, placating many critics.
The other issues that surround stem cell research surround all types of health research: should we be playing God? What will the information be used for? Divisive as it is, research into terminal diseases has helped save thousands of people and we probably can’t afford to ignore the opportunities that stem cells offer.
The second concern is that in the future scientists will use the aforementioned iPS technique to create human clones, and at the rate research is progressing this concern could become reality. Can we trust scientists to act morally? Would cloning necessarily be a bad thing?
Present versus future
These questions are difficult to answer, since they concern something that is not yet possible. However, it must be said that because stem cell research has the potential to save thousands of lives scientists have a duty to continue. This new Parkinson’s breakthrough is only the beginning and it is hard to argue against a form of research which can be so medically productive. When it does happen, we will have to ask ourselves if we can ethically justify the scientific creation of human life. The issue of clones is something that will need to be confronted when the time comes, but for the moment it is not the primary function of stem cell research.