Umbilical cord blood contains stem cell, which can be used for scientific research and medical treatments, including the treatment of leukemia. Since umbilical is a waste product without a real purpose, the use of umbilical cord stem cells is much less controversial than the use of embryonic stem cells.
Unfortunately, this sounded too good to be true. Other scientists have failed to reproduce these results and ultimately the scientists involved had to retract their article. [update January 2, 2015]
Japanese scientists claim to have developed a new method to create human “embryonic-like” stem cells, without the ethical concerns of using real human embryos. Induced pluripotent stem cells have been considered as the solution for the controversial use of human embryos as source for stem cells for medical treatments, and for years scientists have been developing techniques to create such induced pluripotent stem cells. But until now these methods required the genetic engineering of adult cells, the Japanese have now found a method to change adult cells into stem cells without genetic engineering.
According to The Independent the scientists have succeeded to create induced pluripotent stem cells, just by bathing adult cells in a weak acid for half an hour. This new development is quite promising, if this method really works then stem cell therapy has the potential to become a widespread and reasonably cheap treatment for a wide variety of diseases.
The two main competitors of this technique, therapeutic cloning and traditional induced stem cells, are quite expensive. In “classic” induces pluripotent stem cells, complicated genetic engineering techniques are required, which demand skilled personal. And further genetic engineering is to a certain degree gambling, the genes have to get into the right place, or it will fail.
And besides the ethical controversy surrounding therapeutic cloning, this method has a serious drawback: the need for a huge amount of human egg cells. Harvesting human egg cells is not easy, since this requires surgery. And it’s questionable that there will be many women willing to sell or donate their eggs for this purpose.
A cheap and reliable supply of stem cells is beneficial for the field of tissue engineering, the creation of tissues and organs outside the human body.
As the regular reader will know, we of Republic of Lagrangia are quite enthusiastic about in vitro meat. For non-regular readers, in-vitro meat is meat cultured outside the body of an animal, mostly in a lab. In order to do this, scientists have to collect stem cells from, for instance, a cow, which can be done though a biopsy. Since this does not require to kill the donor, some people consider in vitro meat as a more ethical alternative for regular meat.
Theoretically there no restriction on what animals can be used as potential donor for stem cells for the production of in vitro meat. Even meat from exotic or endangered species could be produced cheaply in this way. Practical considerations as availability of donor animals, and the demand for certain types of meat, will determine which meat will be produced.
There is no inherent reason why human stem cells cannot be used for the production of in vitro meat. And this worries some people. But why would this be wrong? If eating human is wrong, it’s mostly because we object to the killing of humans. Only, in vitro meat does not require the killing of the stem cell donors. Besides humans can, in contrast to other animals, give informed consent to such donation.
Republic of Lagrangia endorses classical liberalism as defended by John Stuart Mill. And a core idea of Millian liberalism is the so-called harm principle. People should be allowed to do whatever they want unless someone is harmed by such action. Given that people can voluntarily donate some tissue sample, and that no one is killed in the process; there is no way under the harm principle why cultured human meat would be wrong.
Although some people might object to the consumption of cultured human meat, we see no reason to prohibit people from voluntarily donating some of their own tissue for the production of human meat, or prohibiting people from buying such meat.
In our post Breakthrough artificial egg cells we discussed the possibility to create egg cells from skin tissue. In that article we asserted that one of the main advantage of this development is the possibility to avoid surgery to collect egg cells from a woman. However, this procedure still require a biopsy.
But science, especially in the field of stem cell research, is making fast progress. According to the science daily scientists have succeed in harvesting stem cells from urine. The importance of this development is clear, taking urine samples is one of the most convenient medical procedures (from the prospect of the patient/donor).
If scientists can succeed in creating egg cells from urine stem cells, then egg cell donation will become as easy as sperm donation. Since urine samples can be collected everywhere, this also allows to circumvent strict laws against (commercial) egg cell donation which are enacted by some countries.
In my post Alternative for Abortion I discussed Robin Baker’s proposal for a new system of contraception. In this system people are sterilized at young age, while their gametes are stored ex vivo. However, this would involve two invasive medical procedures in case of women. The possibility of creating egg cells from stem cells extracted from urine, will make this system of contraception much more attractive