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Stem Cells - Code and Coda

Following the recently announced and rather controversial relaxation of the 14-day limit for the growth of embryos by the International Society for Stem Cell Research, networking platforms are abuzz with varied criticisms of the decision. Internet forums are filled with heated political, ethical, and technical arguments, alongside calls for a better research system as a whole. Here with more on the topic is Perspectoverse’s Sabal Handa.


The research and development process for any science comes with its own set of restrictions. Boorishly deemed to be frivolous jargon, the deliberations on these restrictions are every bit as intricate as they seem, and have a crucial role in setting the bar for societal morals. It figures, therefore, that a field as sensitive as biotechnology, and more so that of Stem Cells, be strictly in line with its ethical code(s). Before getting into the proceedings, what becomes even more essential while discussing such topics is an appreciable understanding of the key substance which is first developed.

Stem Cells - An Overview

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells of multicellular organisms from which other cells with specialized functions are synthesized. They can be likened, arbitrarily, to templates or mechanisms of production and differentiation. An important fact to note here is that no other cell in the body has the natural ability to generate new cell types. There are multiple types of these stem cells - Adult, Perinatal (found in amniotic fluid/umbilical cord blood), Embryonic (derived from the inner cell mass of a blastocyst, an early-stage pre-implantation embryo), and Adult stem cells that have been altered to have properties of embryonic stem cells.

In humans, blastocyst formation begins about 5 days after fertilization. While research into adult stem cells is promising, they are comparatively less versatile and durable, which makes them a not-so-viable option for many studies. Hence, embryonic stem cells are being looked at in particular, as an attempt to gain more insight into disease-causation, therapy, regenerative medicine as well as drug testing.

Human embryonic stem cells have the potential to make any cell type in the body in unlimited quantities. Investigation in this area is producing innovative new approaches to treat diseases that represent major public health problems, and cells derived from human embryonic stem cells are now being tested in clinical trials as treatments for diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart failure, macular degeneration, and Stargardt’s macular dystrophy (ISSCR).

The Debate

Embryonic Stem Cell, or SC research has been quite controversial, not only because it requires the in-vitro production of embryos, but also because it involves their destruction. The question of when human life begins has been discussed innumerable times and finds itself at the core of yet another predicament. The issue has also evolved through arguments regarding abortion and legislation for the very same. Correspondingly, it received substantial heat from pro-lifers in the current scenario.

Contentional views on the practice vary from doubts on its morality, efficacy, and plausibility to harsh calls for cutting funding across countries. In the United States, for example, the accepted view was that research with the cells didn't fall under the Congress' federal funding ban. In 2001, however, President Bush extended the ban to cover all human embryonic stem cells—making an exception only for certain cells (currently estimated at 22 stem cell lines). Subsequently, individual states passed patchworks of legislation both in support of and against the research with more bills still being debated at the state level which only made matters more confusing.

The aforementioned International Society for Stem Cell Research/ISSCR is an independent organization based in Illinois; its mission is to promote excellence in stem cell science and applications to human health. It supports rigorous funding to advance treatments for disease, protect investments in science, and ensure that the economy continues to benefit from the significant contributions that science and biomedical research provide.

The ISSCR previously extended the Guidelines for Stem Cell Research and Clinical Translation to cover Chimera research, strongly emphasizing the exigency of specialized oversight grounded in rigorous scientific knowledge and ethical considerations complementing a diligent application of animal welfare principles. It is also a stern opponent to the ‘Right To Try’ legislation and works towards preventing the marketing of unproven stem cell treatments for similar reasons.

In its current seat at the heart of the genomic revolution, it is hoped that stem cell research will prove to be a remarkable turning point in the way medical quandaries and therapy are approached. The increased emphasis of scientific fields around spheres considered ‘sacred’, coupled with protean sociological climates will have a huge hand in deciding the fate of landmark studies and the Gordian knots associated with them.

Written by Sabal Handa

Illustrated by Nishtha Dayal


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