Should embryonic stem cells be allowed to develop longer than 14 days?

Ever since the first discovery in 1981 of embryonic stem cell grown from mice, by which embryos lead to the movement of culturing human embryonic stem cells in a laboratory in 1998, there has been a massive concern in relation to ethical issues. Mainly, due to the lack of definition whether the embryo represents a human, and if not, at what stage of development does this human definition develop. 


Due to this, the fight for a scientist to use embryos to develop for research purposes longer than 14 days is rendered unethical and unlawful in the United Kingdom, and even other countries like the USA and China uphold different types of regulations after on the terms of using embryonic stems cells for research.
However, due to the recent research published in Nature cell biology, raises the question once again should the 14-day law be reviewed, and if so what are the benefits that could come from doing this.

To answer this we need to understand the basic development of a human embryonic stem cell. When commencing the practice of in vitro fertilisation, on day 0 fertilisation will occur in the laboratory. On day 3 the zygote will mature to produce a totipotent cell, these cells can give rise to all tissue types but cannot develop into a whole organism. It is on days 5-6 whereby the trophectoderm develops with an inner cell mass of blastocysts. At this stage of development the blastocyst stays dormant, but when ready will differentiate into various specialised cells in normal development. However, also at this stage, the trophectoderm will begin to progress to implant into the uterus wall eventually becoming the placenta.


In embryonic stem cell research, it is this blastocyst that is removed from the environment of the trophectoderm and further cultured in a laboratory. Using these blastocysts for research can give rise to study the progression of all tissue types as they can be manipulated to develop into various tissue, which also gives a more direct study of the progression and understanding of many diseases. Furthermore, culturing different tissue or cells would also allow for a more accurate approach to drug testing before moving to human trials. Doing this would provide a more direct analysis of where to make an improvement to the drug and how the pharmacokinetics of the drug.



Why not carry on using animal embryonic stem cells, like scientist always have?

Well, currently using embryos, such as those derived from mice, can, and have provided much of our understanding of disease and drugs, up to a certain point. We must remember that although we may share some common genes with animals, we like all other species develop in our own unique way, therefore rendering research conducted with animals as limited.

Currently, the scientist is able to study some tissue using a more excepted method of induced pluripotent stem cell, whereby the stem cells are derived from adult cells allowing stem cell research to be carried out in a different manner. Using induced pluripotent stem cells can be more beneficial, for example when studying drugs against a disease, or the development of a disease, the results and understanding would be more specific to that individual, creating a more personalised treatment.

So, with all of these benefits why is the research upon using embryonic stem cells very controversial and limited?

The problem by preventing the constricted regulation of the use of embryonic stem cells is known to be an ethical-moral dilemma. A dilemma between firstly the benefits mentioned above, the duty to alleviate suffering, and secondly, the duty to respect the value of human life. The argument against supports the belief that the embryo although presented with no characteristics, it still is classified as a person in very early development. Whereas the argument opposing suggests that the embryo is not a person and cannot develop as it would normally without a uterus.

But why can we not develop embryonic stem cells further than 14 days? 


The answer to this question is based on the physical development of the embryo itself. Firstly, at day 14 the embryo will not divide to create a twin, and it is less likely to fail in its early progression. Secondly, the embryo after day 14 begins to show a primitive streak, the beginnings of a nervous system, therefore some believe the embryo would have developed some sort of sense.

I believe the future of the use of embryonic stem cells to be extended further than 14 days for research purposes requires the question to be answered, this being ‘what is more significant and important, our future understanding of diseased states and the health benefits, or the respect and value for human life.

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