While many people are familiar with the term “stem cell”, few have a full understanding of the topic or the purposes these cells can serve. In fact, even most experts will admit that the possibilitiesof stem cells are yet to be fully determined. This is partially due to the controversy surrounding stem cells and moral concerns which have slowed the progress throughout the field of research. What is known is that these cells have the ability to develop intomany different types of cells with a wide variety of functions, and that these cells are good at acting as asubstitute for missing or damaged cells. Stem cells have even been under testing to determineif entire organs can be artificially grown for use in human organ transplants. With the research and science that is currently available it is undeniable that these cells have massive potential in the field of health care. However, stem cell utility may only be fully realizedif society at large accepts the idea that the benefits that stem cells provide for human health and wellbeing outweigh the moral concerns.
The history of stem cells and stem cell research dates back over a century. The term “stem” was originated in 1868 with Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist.He first used the term to describe a fertilized egg that becomes an organism.1 (BCH) During the 20thcentury, there were many cell theories of all kinds touching on different characteristics of stemcells. In 1957, Donnal Thomas performed the first bone marrow transplant which waseffectively the first use of stem cells.1 (BCH) The bone marrow cells displayed fantasticcharacteristics, such as the ability to generate different types of cells and even undergo mitosis tocreate more stem cells. Over the years, further discoveries were made on where within the body stem cellsare located, as well as what the cells themselves can do. Hypothesis, theories and advancementsin stem cell research are still emerging today, over a century and a half after their “discovery”. Over this prolonged period of research and testing, stem cells have proven very useful in identifying and curing diseases. One such disease isStargardt’s Disease, which causes progressive vision loss and eventually blindness. While no official cure hasbeen found, stem cells have been used in treatments in clinical trials and the results are very promising.2(VisionAware)
Some testing has proven the usefulness of stem cells, but other hypotheticals proposed byscientists for stem cell use can sound like something out of a science fiction book, implying that these cells have almost magical properties. Clinical trials for suchhypotheticals however are very few, but those that exist often have promising results. The best function of Stem Cellsis the potential to cure disease. The ability for scientists to watch Stem Cells develop into brainor muscle cells can help them to better understand how diseases work. Some specific caseswhere Stem Cells have been heavily theorized or tested to work was for those with spinalinjuries, Parkinson’s disease, Type 1 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancers, and Arthritis. (Mayo)
Stem Cells are also useful in some other applications that are often overlooked, such as testing of drug treatments. The cells will be utilized to mimic a certain tissue and the drug’s effects will be studied. This is more accurate than testing on model organisms and also
safer than testing on humans. In addition to drug tests, stem cells arealso very useful for replacing damaged or defunct cells within organs or tissues. This is a more well-known usage. The cells are transplanted to the patient and placed around healthy cells. Then, the stem cells will
begin to function like the existing healthy cells. This is a common practice for severe burn patients.Before stem cells, burn victims would often have to have skin grafted from other areas on their body or even receive skin tissue from pigs.
There are two types of stem cells: embryonic and adult. There a differing pros and cons between these these two varieties of stem cell. Most notably, embryonic stem cells are those that are commonly associated with the moral dilemma and controversy. This is because—as the name implies—these cells are harvested from human embryos whereas adult stem cells come entirely from adult donors. However, embryonic cellstransform much better than adult stem cells.
The value of these stem cells lies in their properties. Embryonic stem cells are highly capable ofself-replication.3 (NIH) This means that these cells are able to reproduce on their own, even outside the body and incontrolled lab environments. This allows the cells to multiply rapidly in number, increasing theiravailability and thus improving the number of practical uses. Stem cells in general are also unspecialized, meaning that they can serve many purposes and functions.3 (NIH) Their “unspecialized” trait allows themto transforminto othercell types and serve the purpose of those cells. Stem cells will begin to mimic cells through 3 ways: chemical contact, physical contact, and molecules within a microenvironment. So, while stem cells cannotcarry oxygen like a red blood cell, through one of the aforementioned processes they can become a red blood cell and perform the oxygen-carrying task of such cells. In their transformation, they cangive rise to specialized cells.3(NIH) Scientists are still working to fully understand how exactly stem cells are able to do this as well as what specialized cells they are capable of becoming.
Unfortunately, only stem cells from human bodies are compatible withhuman bodies. Therefore, it goes without saying that humanstemcells must come from somewhere. Fortunately,many come from willing donations. For adult stem cells, often, this donation takes the form of peripheral blood donation, a much more complicated process than regular blood donation.(BeTheMatch).
Adult cells however typically donot fare nearly as well when isolated in a lab environment, and embryonic stem cells are more versatile,meaning they are able to develop into an increased number of different cell types. Adultstem cells are more limited in their potentialbut are easier to use with humans as adultstem cell treatmentsfrequently utilize the patient’s own stem cells, easing theacceptance of said cells into the body. Adult stem cells are also much easier toobtain than embryonic stem cells and come from a variety oflocations in the body. They are not specific to particular areas but rather are found throughout body tissue and organs in small amounts. (BCH) The most common methods of retrieving adult StemCells is through bone marrow and blood. Stem Cells can be filtered out of blood which is a moredifficult process than retrieving bone marrow which is made up of numerous amounts of Stem Cells. Each method of Stem Cell retrieval yields a small amount of Stem Cells which must then be cultured to increase the number of available Stem Cells for research. (BCH) The weaknesses come in to play when they are put to use in treatment,
“Adult stem cells are more likely to have abnormalities from DNA mutations, which can occur due to any number of factors. The ‘youth’ of embryonic stem cells means that they are less likely to carry mutations and they also regenerate much more quickly than adult stem cells.” 3 (Murnaghan)
Embryonic stem cells on the other handoften come from aborted and still born fetuses. (CBHD) Many object to this. But, this is not the only source of embryonic stem cells. They can also be acquired from the umbilical cord, with the mother’s permission, which is ethical as theumbilical cord is usually disposed of otherwise. In fact, manystem cells come from things discarded. Few people give blood with the intentionto donate stem cells – most probably do not realize that these cells can be found in the blood. Stemcells also can be found in amniotic fluid, which is the fluid that surrounds the fetus in the womb.(BCH) This fluid is often tested during pregnancy to test for chromosomal defects. The fluid,then typically discarded, can instead be analyzed and the present Stem Cells can be taken out of the fluidand cultured.
Despite these alternative sources, the methods of stem cell acquirement have slowed the research. The misconceptionspeople hold about stem cells has led to a shortage of available cells for use in research and treatment. Many do believe that the use of fetuses and fetal byproductsis for the greater good to help the millions of people with different diseases and disabilities. Others, however, have only heard the negative aspects of stem cells and do not see thevalue in them. In spite of the many possibilities andfunctions for stem cells, misinformation and controversyhas been a roadblock to wider realization that donating stem cells can be an easy and non-invasive process. This sad realityhas led to a situation that issometimes compared to having a shortage of lumber—endless possibilities with no wood for the construction.
Many continue tobelieve that it is unethical to “harvest” stem cells from humanembryos, and the heated debate results in restrictions and research budget reductions thathinderstem cell advancements.
“The National Institutes of Health created guidelines forhuman stem cell research in 2009. Guidelines included defining embryonic stem cells and howthey may be used in research and donation guidelines for embryonic stem cells. Also, guidelinesstated embryonic stem cells may only be used from embryos created by in vitro fertilizationwhen the embryo is no longer needed.”5 (Mayo Clinic Staff)
Over time,scientists have fortunately discovered the process of stem cell cloning. As this processbegan to improve, less donations and less harvesting was required. But the morality question is not the only challenge to overcome. In addition to the dilemma with the retrievalmethod, there was a study concluded in 1997 by Dominique Bonnet and John Dick that linked thedevelopment of cancer cells with Stem Cells. (BCH) This study would later be disproved, but itseffects on popular opinion remain. People often fear and react negatively to the words ‘stem cells.’ Though this fear is baseless and founded on misinformation, it serves to hinder the progress that scientists and researchers can make in developing accepted treatments.
When weighing pros and cons from a purely objective point of view, embryonic stem cells have clear advantages. They have the edge in just about every category as it relates to health care and medicine, but the moral concerns cannot be discounted. Many believe that it is unethical to harvest embryonic stem cells from fetuses, and this conversation often gets intertwined with the serious, ongoing debate around the morality and legality of abortion. Until these concerns can be better addressed, scientists shouldcontinue to work with both varieties ofstem cell and work to better define the differences between the two.
There is hope that progress can be made even if this moral dilemma surrounding embryonic stem cells is not resolved, thanks to the important role that biotechnology plays in stem cell research. As this technologyimproves,retrieval will become easierand the uses forStem Cells will continue to be understood. Stem cells may be able to be better cultured or evenfound in other places in the body. Stem cell breakthroughs will continue to make headlines andinspire further research.
Ultimately, the possibilities for are just beginning to be understood. As we look to the future of stem cells today, their potential seems almost unlimited While public opinion still hinders research, hopefully as more success stories are shared this will change.With increased funding, decreasedregulations, and increased public support for Stem Cells, the sky is the limit. Asstem cells become more available,they will be able to be used more efficiently. More and more diseases will become curable.Those who are paralyzed or without mobilitymay be able to regain movement. The history of stem cells is young, and positive sentiment does appear to be rising. With more time, and wider socialization of success stories, stem cells will hopefullybe able to play an even bigger role in modernmedicine.
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