Although the controversy may never completely go away, it is helpful for people to know more about and understand how stem cell research is done, and what it can do for people and the medical community.
What Is a Stem Cell and How Can It Be Used?
According to the Mayo Clinic stem cells are the “raw material” or cells our bodies are made of and they are where all other “cells with specialized functions are generated.” So much of what makes these cells valuable and controversial is that they can be divided to make more cells. This can help people with certain diseases or injuries by creating new and healthy cells for someone’s blood, brain, heart muscle, and bones.
Traditional Stem Cell Harvesting
Typically the stem cells are harvested from the inner cell mass of a growing embryo. When this inner mass is removed, the embryo is no longer viable and is destroyed. The traditional harvesting method is commonly referred to as somatic cell nuclear transfer. In this process a nucleus is removed from a somatic cell and placed into a donor egg that has had its center removed leaving it to act like a fertilized egg that divides into new cells. One of the ethical dilemmas in this procedure is that this egg could potentially grow and form into a human being.
What is Going on with Research Right Now?
A lot of the controversy over stem cell research is how the scientists harvest or recover the cells because the ones that are most valuable are embryonic cells that have to come from newly formed embryos that are less than a week old. Recently however there is new technology developing to help called Altered Nuclear Transfer which is supposed to allow for stem cells to be removed without having to destroy the embryo. In ANT an embryo is not actually created but instead the nucleus of the somatic cell is altered through genetic reprogramming so that the cell DNA produces stem cells but no embryo.
Benefits from Stem Cell Research
As researchers have been diligent in their stem cell research and used applications like custom antibody production to identify, separate, and examine proteins as well as sorting and classifying cells they have been able to find a number of huge benefits in using stem cells. Just a few conditions that healthy stems cells can help with are:
• Transplant needs
• Type I diabetes
• Burn victims
• Cardiovascular diseases
• Birth defects
• Spinal cord injuries
• Help fight cancer
• Stroke victims
The healthy stem cells help to replace or repair damaged cells that are causing the patients’ health problems and can allow for restorative treatments and cures.
The Future of Stem Cells
Susan Solomon, the co-founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation refers to stem cells as the “black boxes for diseases”. Aware of the controversy over embryonic cells, she is excited about pluripotent stem cells now being created. These are skin cells altered for use, which could cut down on or even eliminate the need for embryonic stem cells.
Stem cell research and application has come a long way. But it is clear that with all of the good it has done, there is still a long road ahead.
The above post is a guest blog entry.
Suggested reading: The Stem Cell Hope: How Stem Cell Medicine Can Change Our Lives