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A natural stem cell therapy? How novel findings and biotechnology clarify the ethics of stem cell research


The natural replacement of damaged cells by stem cells occurs actively and often in adult tissues, especially rapidly dividing cells such as blood cells. An exciting case in Boston, however, posits a kind of natural stem cell therapy provided to a mother by her fetus—long after the fetus is born. Because there is a profound lack of medical intervention, this therapy seems natural enough and is unlikely to be morally suspect. Nevertheless, we feel morally uncertain when we consider giving this type of therapy to patients who would not naturally receive it. Much has been written about the ethics of stem cell research and therapy; this paper will focus on how recent advances in biotechnology and biological understandings of development narrow the debate. Here, the author briefly reviews current stem cell research practices, revisits the natural stem cell therapy case for moral evaluation, and ultimately demonstrates the importance of permissible stem cell research and therapy, even absent an agreement about the definition of when embryonic life begins.

Although one promising technology, blighted ovum utilisation, uses fertilised but developmentally bankrupt eggs, it is argued that utilisation of unfertilised eggs to derive totipotent stem cells obviates the moral debate over when life begins. There are two existing technologies that fulfil this criterion: somatic cell nuclear transfer and parthenogenic stem cell derivation. Although these technologies are far from therapeutic, concerns over the morality of embryonic stem cell derivation should not hinder their advancement.

  • HSC, haematopoietic stem cell
  • PAPC, pregnancy associated progenitor cell
  • stem cell
  • pregnancy associated progenitor cell
  • somatic cell nuclear transfer
  • parthenogenesis
  • blighted ovum
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