Research and experimentation of stem cells is constantly evolving. The study of stem cells is fascinating and has led to many discoveries, as well as a lot of questions. The basic idea behind stem cell research and usage is to utilize stem cells in an attempt to regenerate other cells. The distinctive properties of stem cells are leading scientists to discover innovative ways to treat current diseases, as well as screen the latest drugs, understand the causes of many birth defects and examine typical human growth patterns.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are cells within humans and animals that have the potential to be developed into a multitude of other cells. They are essentially a blank canvas that is capable of becoming another type of cell. Additionally, stem cells have regenerative properties and serve as a repair system for the human body. Stem cells are found in certain tissue and are capable of rebuilding and repairing cells as long as the person remains alive. As stem cells divide, they have the capability of staying a stem cell or morphing into another type of cell with a particular function. Stem cells can become:
- Brain cells
- Muscle cells
- Skin cells
- Nerve cells
- Red blood cells
Why Are Stem Cells Important?
Although they are microscopic, stem cells have enormous potential in the medical community. A stem cell’s unique ability to become something else, or to rejuvenate damaged tissue, is exciting and amazing news in the treatment of many diseases and conditions. Stem cells are important because:
- They are a natural solution
- They exist in our bodies organically
- Our bodies already utilize stem cells for self-repair
- Stem cells have been used successfully for many years
Where Do Stem Cells Come From?
Stem cells can be derived from a variety of sources. Where the stem cell originated from will indicate what type of stem cell it is. There are 3 types of stem cells: embryonic, adult and induced pluripotent stem cells. Current sources of stem cell harvest include:
- Disregarded embryos initially intended for In Vitro Fertilization
- Umbilical Cord Blood (see: The Benefits Of Saving Cord Blood)
- Human tissue such as bone marrow
What Are The Different Types Of Stem Cells?
Stems cells are not like any other cells in the human body. Most human cells have the ability to reproduce, but only into exact replicas of themselves. Stem cells on the other hand, have the ability to become other cells, depending upon what the body needs. There are three types of stem cells:
- Embryonic Stem Cells: Embryonic stem cells are derived from early embryos in the blastocyst stage, which occurs 4 to 5 days after fertilization. Because harvesting the inner cell mass of the blastocyst destroys the embryo, there has been much ethical debate on the procedure. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can morph into many types of cells within the human body, generating new cells.
- Adult Stem Cells: Adult stem cells are undifferentiated, meaning they have not yet developed into specialized cells. They are found all over the human body and have the ability to multiply and divide in order to regenerate dying cells and injured tissue. Adult stem cells have been noted in many areas of the body such as bone marrow, the brain, blood vessels, skin, skeletal muscles, heart and liver. The ability for adult stem cells to generate outside of the body is possible, but the quantity of new cells is limited.
- Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells: Induced pluripotent cells were once adult stem cells that have been genetically manipulated into the state of an embryonic stem cell. Scientists derived a way to forcibly make adult stem cells express genes and properties similar to that of embryonic stem cells. Researchers are still exploring induced pluripotent cells, however, they have been utilized in the development of drugs as well as the modeling of current diseases.
What Is Therapeutic Cloning?
Typically, therapeutic cloning refers to the creation of a cloned embryo for the purpose of extracting embryonic stem cells or tissue, thus destroying the embryo itself. The act of therapeutic cloning involves inserting the nucleus of a human cell into a fertilized egg which has had the nucleus removed. The newly intact egg begins to form a blastocyst. The stem cells are then harvested from the blastocyst and used to grow new cells that match the origin of the transplanted nucleus. In other words, the new cells will be a genetic match for whomevers cells were used to nucleate the original embryo.
Why Is There Controversy Over The Use Of Stem Cells?
The controversy surrounding stem cell usage revolves around the harvesting and use of embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are extracted from human fertilized embryos. The stem cells from embryos are pluripotent, meaning that they can be developed into various types of cells throughout the body, making them extremely important and useful in stem cell research and treatments. An ethical debate has risen due to the following factors:
- Certain groups believe that it is unethical to utilize and destroy human embryos, likening the process to murder.
- Other groups feel that an embryo is not a human being and that the use of embryos for stem cell research is perfectly ethical.
How May Stem Cells Be Used In The Medical Field?
The main goal of stem cell research is to figure out how undifferentiated stem cells can be replicated into differentiated cells, such as the cells of human tissue and organs. Studying stem cells and how they work allows scientists to understand how conditions and diseases come to be and allow them to discover new treatment options.
Currently, stem cells have been utilized in the testing and development of new medications. Additionally, stem cells have the potential to be utilized in cell-based therapies that will allow for tissue and cell generation. Stem cells have the potential to treat many diseases and conditions including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Spinal cord injury
- Heart disease
- Burn victims
- Rheumatoid arthritis
What Is Stem Cell Therapy?
Stem cell therapy is the process of differentiating cells into specified cells. The specified cells can then be utilized to repair damaged or destroyed cells and tissue. There are many stem cell therapies that currently exist, but many of them are still in the experimental stages or can be extremely costly.
Are Stem Cells Currently Being Used To Treat Diseases?
Stem cell treatments are constantly being researched. While many do exist, they can be quite expensive or are in need of further experimentation and study. The exception is bone marrow transplantation. Bone marrow transplants have been successful for many years. Scientists believe that soon, stem cell therapy will be used to treat many conditions including:
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Huntington’s Disease
- Celiac Disease
- Muscle damage
- Neurological damage
What Are the Challenges of Using Stem Cells?
To realize the potential uses of stem cells, scientists have to ensure that the process is successful. To be utilized for transfer, stem cells must:
- Multiply and regenerate considerable amounts of tissue
- Be made into the specific type of cell needed
- Thrive in the patient following transplant
- Become one with the surrounding tissue
- Continue functioning appropriately for the duration of the patient’s life
- Not harm the patient in any way
The use of stem cells to treat current diseases and conditions is a very exciting and promising thought. However, it may take years of research to perfect stem cell therapies. Scientists are constantly working to improve upon the process of stem cell treatments. The future of stem cell research and application will likely be a promising one, but will not be without controversy or obstacles.