• Mayuri Vaish

Does stem cell research and gene-editing allow us to play God?

Let’s first talk about stem cell research. Does stem cell research allow us to play God? As of current practices, I would say likely not.

Of course, stem cell needs to be divided into its respective categories - use of embryonic stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells.

First let’s discuss stem cells as a whole. The general application of stem cells, in my opinion, is ethical as of today. This is because, despite constant media highlighting how scientists “unethically” inject mice or humans with stem cells, scientists primarily do this in order to better understand disease, or to test their therapies under experimental license for near-terminal patients. Actions are and must be approved by an ethics board (such as the FDA[1] in the US) before being performed, and are only tested if it shows promising outlook on animal and/or in-vitro studies. Moreover, most of current stem cell research simply involves the building of 2-D and/or 3-D in-vitro models, where living cells are used and abandoned - but no harm is imposed upon organisms.

But at a deeper level, it is the kind of stem cell that raises differences in ethical concerns regarding stem cells.

Generally, embryonic stem cells are much more controversial, as they technically involve the termination of embryos, which may be defined as the killing of human (or potentially human) lives. Nevertheless, I believe that its usage is relatively justified for the sake of science - as embryos used are always taken with consent[2], or waiving consent for unidentifiable owners of the embryos[3]. Moreover, the medical community has already carefully thought about maintaining donor confidentiality[4], thus acknowledging and bypassing the issue. So in this case, I would not say that usage of eSCs (Embryonic Stem Cells) allow scientists to “play God”: Rather, they ensure due respect and caution when working with stem cells, including minimizing all possible donor harm[5].

iPSCs (Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells), on the other hand, utilize fibroblast-derived cells (i.e, skin cells) that are then reprogrammed in the laboratory for research. As these do not involve the death of embryos, they are a much more acceptable alternative that does not allow scientists to “play God” by making life-or-death decisions on viable embryos. The major idea of the superpowers of using iPSCs is that technically, scientists can clone human cells[6] - which may create problems regarding DNA privacy, but can also provide patient-specific therapies.

In all, however, I would conclude that stem cells have benefits that outweigh the risks, and have faith in the medical community for upholding bioethical standards today: they have, and likely will, continue ensuring that we do not “play God” with the powers of stem cell research.

As for gene editing, that’s slightly trickier. Specifically, the recent human gene editing case[7] has raised questions about scientists essentially “playing God”. This is primarily surprising because although gene-editing laws are regulated heavily in the United States and other countries, Chinese regulations have appeared to lax up to the point to allow such human gene-editing to occur. Plus, it has not yet been 100% confirmed that the human editing really did happen, so it is possible that no cases of “playing God” have risen in the first place.

Either way, I think although most of the medical community knows general ethical boundaries, there is a risk for a small subset to try and abuse their power. For this I say, it all depends upon the regulation policies. It is essential for boundaries to be defined and enforced, and consistently updated - taking into consideration a variety of perspectives.

Another risk of “playing God” is the utilisation of gene-editing for non-therapeutic purposes… such as enhancing function rather than curing disease. Although widely discussed in the debate and sci-fi community, I personally do not see and have not seen such processes occurring - primarily because nobody will ever fund such experiments as opposed to any other therapeutic research, and because of existing ethical guidelines. So overall, I would still say there is a net no - it is not wrong to use gene-editing for research, because the “playing God” bit is very minute and heavily regulated.

Methods tried must be for purely therapeutic purposes, and be well-practiced - as gene-editing can result in random mutations that may affect other traits of an individual. From what I have seen, this is occurring, and research on humans is very minimal (if not none).

Overall, as long as the purpose is kept intact, and ethical guidelines remain strong, stem cells and gene editing are handy tools to identify markers for disease and to design therapies targeting such issues: I do not envision consistent breaches of playing God occurring. Nevertheless, it is important for scientists and bioethicists to always be weary of ongoing research and to remain conscientious in enforcing policies… or else yes, it would be wrong that medical breakthroughs in stem cell research and gene editing essentially allow us mortals to play God.


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