What Is Stem Cell Research and Why Is It So Controversial?

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Physicians use stem cell therapies today in the treatment of a wide range of serious diseases. Stem cell therapies have effectively cured numerous individuals of genetic diseases and various cancer types. But why is stem cell research so controversial? We take a look at the facts.



What are stem cells?



Stem cells have a unique ability to morph into any one of the specialized cell types found within the body. They are therefore of great value in the medical world. This is because they can be used to replace cells in tissue and organs that have become damaged due to disease.



The human body is composed of many different cell types, each designed to perform a particular specialized function. For example, red blood cells are vital in transporting life-giving oxygen around the body. However, they cannot divide and multiply in the way that other cells can.



Stem cells can be used to replace damaged or depleted specialized cells. Two unique characteristics allow them to do this. The first is the ability to divide and multiply, and the second is the ability to change into another cell type. There are three different types of human stem cells: adult, embryonic, and induced pluripotent.



Adult stem cells



The name is slightly misleading because adult stem cells are also found in children. Adult stem cells are essentially undifferentiated cells that have the ability to divide and multiply to regenerate the various types of cell found in their tissue of origin.



Adult stem cells are found in tissue and organs throughout the human body. Their purpose is to generate cells particular to their tissue or organ of origin in order to replace damaged or depleted cells. Scientists can potentially regenerate an entire organ using just a few adult stem cells.



Embryonic stem cells



Scientists extract embryonic stem cells directly from embryos. Embryonic stem cells are not extracted from embryos within a woman’s body. Rather, they are obtained from eggs fertilized in a laboratory setting.



While experts can use adult stem cells to generate cell types found within the organ of origin, embryonic stem cells are pluripotent. This means that they can become any type of cell found within the human body, rather than being restricted to just the cell types found within their tissue or organ of origin.



Induced pluripotent stem cells



Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) are cells sourced from blood or skin that have been genetically reprogrammed back to an embryonic, pluripotent state. This enables scientist to use them to develop any type of cell found within the human body.



For example, scientists use iPSC to generate blood cells for leukemia patients, brain cells for people with neurological disorders, and beta islet cells for those who have diabetes.



Drs. Amander Clark, William Lowry, Kathrin Plath, and April Pyle developed iPSC at the BSCRC team of faculty in 2007. This groundbreaking discovery quickly became the foundation for regenerative medicine.



Why is stem cell research so controversial?



Adult stem cells have been used in medicine for quite some time now. The first bone marrow transplant was performed in 1956 by Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, a New York physician. His research paved the way for the development of pioneering therapies to treat a range of disorders, from sickle cell anemia to inherited autoimmune disorders.



The use of adult stem cells in medicine doesn’t attract much criticism. Registered bone marrow donors must be consenting volunteers aged 18 years or over who fully understand the procedure. Aside from the risks associated with anesthesia, the procedure is straightforward and safe. Scientists source iPSC from skin and blood cells, the gathering of which is even less invasive.



The controversy lies in the use of embryonic stem cells, specifically the right to create and use human life for medical purposes and discard it afterwards. The United States Government has imposed stringent regulations governing the use of embryonic stem cells. These rules prohibit scientists from creating embryos in the laboratory only to destroy them.



Embryos used in stem cell research in the United States must have been created as for IVF reproductive purposes and must be surplus to the donor’s need. The donor must be properly informed and give consent for their use. Research is carefully monitored, and criminal sanctions are imposed against researchers who fail to adhere to National Institutes of Health (NIH) standards.



What diseases have been cured using stem cell therapies?



Research continues into the efficacy of stem cell therapies in the treatment of numerous diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and Parkinson’s, among others. Increased investment in stem cell research paves the way for tackling diseases on a cellular level, rather than just treating the symptoms. Many scientists believe that stem cell therapies could one day provide a cure for almost any ailment.



Experts have effectively cured individuals of a range of diseases using stem cell therapies, including: leukemias and other blood cancers; neuroblastoma; ovarian cancer; brain tumors; small-cell lung cancer; testicular cancer; renal cell carcinoma; Blackfan-Diamond anemia; Fanconi anemia; pure red cell aplasia; beta thalassemia major; sickle-cell diseases; hemophagocytosis; Hunter Syndrome; Krabbe disease; Gaucher disease; Lesch-Nyhan syndrome; polycythemia vera; and Niemann-Pick disease.


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