Stem Cells Therapy and Research. Benefits and Ethical Challenges

Article excerpt

Abstract: The research on stem cell-based therapies has greatly expanded in recent years. Our text attempts to seek those religious and ethical challenges that stem cell therapy and research bring into debate. Our thesis is that bioethics can defend its principle without a religious background. We will develop our argumentation on three major points: firstly, a comparison between secular ethics and religious views will clarify why stem cell therapy and research are important from a scientific point of view, addressing the very center of the human being; in our view, being based on secular society, bioethics can answer the challenges of stem cell therapy and research; secondly, following Hans Jonas' perspective on experimenting on humans, we seek to understand the philosophical guidance that sciences dealing with stem cell need; thirdly, we will map the ethical guidelines for clinical translational research that have been adopted by the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Key Words: stem cell research, stem cell therapy, bioethics, human embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, regenerative medicine, religious challenges, ethical challenges

Recently, stem cell research and therapy have significantly expanded1. As a result, stem cells-based therapy has become an option for various medical conditions. Yet, from an ethical perspective, even if the controversy about the source of human embryonic stem cells has diminished along with the development of alternative techniques of obtaining stem cells, the new developments in stem cell research cannot avoid ethical controversy, on the whole, and scientists are confronted with a different set of ethical concerns. Stem cell-based therapies have become the clinical standard of cure for some conditions such as hematopoietic stem cell transplants for leukemia.

Several contemporary authors claim that bioethics cannot defend its principles without a religious background. This attitude is obvious even in highly specialized and strictly regulated fields, such as stem cell therapies and research. However, bioethical principles can equally be based on philosophical grounds, as proved by the pioneering example of Hans Jonas' writings on experimentation with human subjects. An even more telling example is that of the ethical guidelines adopted by the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Between Secular Ethics and Religion

By definition, "a stem cell is an unspecialized cell that can both selfrenew (reproduce itself) and differentiate into functional phenotypes. Stem cells can originate from embryonic, fetal, or adult tissue and are broadly categorized accordingly"2. Thus, "regenerative medicine is an emerging branch of medicine whose goal is to restore organ and/or tissue function using a biological approach"3. In order to avoid the ethical dilemmas raised by human embryonic stem cells (hES), alternative sources of stem cells are used. There is an increased support on behalf of religious groups towards the adult stem cell research in order to reduce the utilization of human embryonic stem cells. These alternative sources have initiated the reaction of scientists because of the different properties of the embryonic stem cells vis-à-vis the adult stem cells, the therapeutic potential of the former being higher4. Therefore, our approach, on the one hand, will have in mind this strict definition when approaching stem cell research and therapy and, on the other hand, our paper will focus on the religious and ethical challenges that stem cell therapy and research call into play.

In an introductory article, King-Tak IP stipulates that regenerative medicine formulates a Promethean promise, i.e. "being able to redesign human biological nature in terms of the goals and concerns of humans"5, while H. Tristram Engelhardt equally considers that "regenerative medicine promises to ameliorate, if not cure, a wide range of human injuries, disabilities, and diseases". …