Name: Jeel Shah Personal Tutor: Prof Tom Duke

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Name: Jeel Shah

Personal Tutor: Prof Tom Duke

The responsibility of scientists to society (Ethics of medicine)

Medical Ethics is about the morals of Medicine and what you can and can’t do with it. It is a very engaging and debateable topic and there are many examples of medical ethics in the real world. I have discussed one which interests me the most in this essay. The reason for choosing medical ethics as my topic originates from my interest in medicine in general. I have explored an ethical issue of stem cells. Stem cells are cells that have the ability to change into many different types of cells. My topic of discussion will be on ‘Embryonic’ stem cells which are the most controversial, and if they be used by scientists in their research.

I have used a wide variety of resources for this section. Firstly, I was inspired by Michael J. Fox in a YouTube video [1]. As a result I searched for more information on the internet, and found a variety of websites which helped me to understand stem cells and how they function. This included a detailed animation about embryonic stem cells [2], and a website that discussed the pros and cons of stem cell research [3].

Stem cells are cells that have the potential to differentiate into many different specialised cells (they are pluripotent) [4]. There are many different types of stem cells, but only one type has caused major ethical issues, these are embryonic stem cells. These stem cells are extracted from embryos. These are particularly useful as they are the most pluripotent of all stem cells, however, the extraction involves the destruction of embryos. Many people argue that embryos have the same right to life as people [5].

Arguments for and against embryonic stem cells

Against Embryonic Stem Cells [8]

For Embryonic Stem Cells [8]

We should not play God

It has the potential to save millions of lives

A fertilized egg should be valued as a human life, destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical

Embryos from IVF can be used; these are currently being wasted

We can use other stem cells (other than embryonic stem cells)

Other stem cells are not as useful as embryonic stem cells

While I was researching embryonic stem cells, I came across a Telegraph article [7] which talked about iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells). iPS cell is a type of pluripotent stem cell that is artificially derived from a non-pluripotent cell, normally an adult body cell, by forcing the expression of certain genes. These genes make the body cells pluripotent. These cells are almost identical to embryonic stem cells. This is advantageous as we can now produce stem cells without destroying embryos. There is also a smaller chance of immune rejection as the cells are derived entirely from the patient. I found a series of videos about iPS cells on YouTube [6] by George Daley. These videos explain all the information above in detail.

The main reason why the use of stem cells is subdued is due to the ethics behind it; especially embryonic stem cells that are taken from embryos. These stem cells are creating ethical issues because they are usually extracted by destroying embryos that would have later developed into life. Many people believe that this is another form of killing and that it shouldn’t be allowed. Would it be ethical to kill a healthy person and then use their organs to cure other people? For example, this could be in the form of killing a person to get their kidney, and using this kidney to save another person. This would definitely not be ethical as a human life is equal and therefore we shouldn’t kill one to save the other. This is the main argument against the use of embryonic stem cells.

However, I disagree with this argument as embryonic stem cells from In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) can be used. In this process most of these embryos are destroyed and are unwanted. Nevertheless these unwanted embryos are going to be destroyed, so why not use them as stem cells? We can use them to save millions of lives around the world before they are inevitably destroyed. This means that no embryos are harmed – only the ones that are already going to be destroyed (in IVF) are used. So the above argument about killing a life to save another is not completely valid. This situation is more accurately modelled by the runaway train scenario (pictured below). There are six people tied down to two tracks, five in route A and one in route B. The train can’t be stopped and the people therefore can’t escape. There is a person at the point (which can be used to change the direction that the train travels in). Currently, the train is heading down route A and five people will die. If the person switches the points the train will go down route B and only one will die. What should he do?

The most ethical choice would be to switch the points and only let one person die. This is because there is going to be a death and that can’t be prevented, so as many lives should be saved as possible. Using this logic we can see that in IVF the embryos are going to die anyway, so life is going to be lost. However if we can use this to save millions of lives before the embryos are killed, we should, because we will be saving as many lives as possible. As a result, I believe that the use of embryonic stem cells is ethical provided they come from IVF.

The discovery of Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells has made the argument about embryonic stem cells unnecessary. We can produce stem cells that are almost as pluripotent as embryonic stem cells without the need of embryos, and so iPS cells are more ethical. Overall, I believe that the use of iPS cells and embryonic stem cells from IVF are ethical; however iPS cells are more ethical than embryonic stem cells from IVF as they don’t need embryos.


[1] - – Michael J. Fox talking about stem cell research, July 30 2008.

[2] - - detailed animation on stem cells

[3] - - pros and cons of stem cell research

[4]- - Stem cells, Wikipedia

[5] - - Times article on stem cells

[6]- – Playlist on YouTube about iPS cells by George Daley; April 2009

[7] - - Telegraph article about iPS; by Richard Alleyne, 01 Mar 2009

[8] - - pros and cons of stem cell research

Total Word Count: 1102 words.
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