By Jubilee Cheung
The Ebola scare currently sweeping across the United States is far from unfounded; the outbreak of the disease in West Africa is acknowledged as the most widespread to date, having now killed over 5,000 people. It recently threatened to spread across Mali, where it has already claimed the life of a nurse who had been treating an infected individual. Sierra Leone has also been hit particularly hard by the disease, as caregivers continue to test positive for Ebola. The remaining staff are understandably unnerved, and some have gone on strike in response to a lack of monetary compensation for the risky nature of their work.
American nurses and other volunteers appear to echo this sentiment, criticizing the inadequate protection provided to caregivers combating the illness overseas. Though the United States was recently declared free of Ebola, it had been viewed as a very real concern only a short time ago. The first case in the states occurred in September, where a man in Texas was diagnosed with Ebola and died eight days later; two of the nurses tasked with treating him were also infected, but survived. The most recent case manifested in the Oct. 23 diagnosis of a doctor who had been combating Ebola in Guinea, and has since been discharged.
Though the eradication of the disease in the United States does mark a celebratory milestone, the Ebola scare has certainly left its mark as steps have been taken to develop a functioning vaccine. A vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), as well as by the US National Institutes of Health, is expected to commence with human trials in West Africa as early as next month. These apparent medical strides in the fight against Ebola, however, have garnered a less than enthusiastic response among ardent pro-life groups. On group in particular, Children of God for Life, is opposing the vaccine on the grounds that it was developed through stem cell research. Working with stem cells often provides doctors with important insights regarding organismal development, and the practice has proven invaluable in its potential to fight disease. But there is a somewhat questionable means to that end – stem cells are primarily obtained through the destruction of human embryos. A member of Children of God for Life, Debi Vinnedge, has gone so far as to criticize the Obama administration as being “completely irresponsible” for approving the development of these vaccines, claiming that they cannot be “[used] in good conscience”. The group is currently pushing for “morally acceptable alternatives”.
Controversy surrounding stem cell research is not a new phenomenon – the two have coexisted since the inception of the latter. It is primarily the methods through which doctors and researchers obtain stem cells that occasionally incite public backlash, more so than the practice of working with these cells itself. One common way of acquiring stem cells is though the deliberate creation, and invariably subsequent destruction, of human embryos. Stem cells can also be harvested from “aborted fetal cell lines,” which is the practice that the Children of God for Life alleges is being employed in the development of Ebola vaccines. The potential benefits surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research are staggering. Observing stem cells allows an enriched understanding of how a disease first occurs, as well as the effects it has on the body. Stem cells are undifferentiated, unspecialized cells with the extraordinary capacity to later develop into different types of cells. They are highly regenerative, and have the potential to be manually developed into a particular variety of cell – the qualities most responsible for their appeal in drug and medicinal testing.
As complicated as it is to denounce the benefits derived from stem cell research, it is equally complicated to ignore the ethical issues that also concern it. Many of these problems find some overlap with those revolving around the concept of abortion; chief among said issues is the matter of human life, what defines it, and where it begins. There are some religions – namely Catholicism – that maintain that human life begins at fertilization; there also exist other parties that, speaking from what they refer to as a more scientific point of view, question this idea and propose that human life may begin farther along chronologically. Whatever one chooses to accept as true, it is probably with some measure of difficulty that they reconcile themselves to the use of human embryonic stem cells in such a manner, versus that of another animal species.
The central issue at hand concerning stem cell research involves the matter of their acquisition: the Children of God for Life group, is demonstratively opposing the development of the Ebola vaccine on the grounds that it is being tested on stem cells derived from aborted fetuses. The concept of using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), versus stem cells obtained from human fetuses, has the potential to eliminate such controversy. iPSCs are defined as adult cells, often taken from the blood or skin, that are then programmed to return to an embryonic state closely mirroring that of stem cells. In this regard, the iPSCs can act as a benignly obtained substitute for stem cells that ultimately serves the same purpose. While iPSCs have tremendous potential, as a newer scientific breakthrough further research is required before they can reach quite the same level of practical usefulness as traditional embryonic stem cells.
If the progress in the production of preventative vaccines as substantial as it promises to be, it would arguably be unethical not to pursue their development to the fullest extent. The current Ebola outbreak has afflicted 14,000 and killed over 5,000. The method in which the potential vaccines are tested might be morally troubling, but stem cell research is not a new concept. Stem cell research is being used in other studies at this very moment, in the search for cures to ailments such as Alzheimer’s among many others. It is the prevalent fear that the rigorous spread of Ebola has incited that has given a new face to an old controversy. If there are indeed economically feasible ethical alternatives to such testing, it is worth noting that they might merit trial in the future. The use of iPSCs, for example, shows great promise in the future of drug and medicinal testing. But as matters stand right now, pursuing a vaccine that combats an obviously very pervasive illness should be the world’s first priority. Tragic as it is, there are nearly always casualties where global advancement is concerned.
Image by Bryan Jones