Many scientists believe that a long list of diseases and ailments could be treated using stem cells.
The potentials of stem cell research, as well as the ethics of the practice, have undergone much debate in the last couple of decades.
Are you interested in understanding stem cells and their medical uses?
Let’s take a look at what you need to know about stem cells.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are cells that have the ability to differentiate themselves into other types of cells. In some cases, but not all, they’re able to repair tissues that have been damaged.
Many scientists and researchers believe that devastating ailments like Alzheimer’s disease and paralysis could one day be treated with stem-cell-based therapies.
There are two main types of stem cells, known as embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
The embryonic stem cells that are used in studies and research today are sourced from unused embryos. These unused embryos result from in vitro fertilization and are donated to science.
Embryonic cells have the ability to turn into more than just one type of cell. This ability is referred to as being pluripotent.
There are two different types of adult stem cells.
The first can be found in fully developed tissues like skin, bone marrow, and the brain. These stem cells are limited, however. Not only are there only a small number of stem cells in these tissues, but also they are more likely to only generate specific types of cells. For example, a stem cell that comes from the liver is only capable of producing more liver cells.
The second type of adult stem cell is known as induced pluripotent stem cells.
These stem cells are adult stem cells that are manipulated in a lab. They’re able to reprogram them so they possess the pluripotent capabilities of the embryonic stem cells. Scientists only learned that they could manipulate stem cells in this way in 2006. Curiously, while induced pluripotent stem cells appear to be clinically the same as embryonic stem cells, they still haven’t found an induced pluripotent stem cell that can transform into every type of tissue and cell.
Uses of Stem Cells in Medicine and Research
So far the only stem cells used in non-experimental procedures are those found in the bone marrow known as hematopoietic stem cells. These adult stem cells are blood-cell forming.
Every kind of blood cell found in bone marrow starts out as a stem cell.
These stem cells can be used to help cancer patients produce new blood cells. This is after chemotherapy and radiation therapy killed their own hematopoietic stem cells. This is done through procedures like bone marrow transplants.
People who have a blood disorder called Fanconi anemia can also be treated in this way. This disease causes bone marrow failure in the body.
Another use of stem cells is for the testing of new medications. Researchers are able to test the safety and effectiveness of drugs on human stem cells, which means that they don’t have to be tested on animals.
People do seek stem cell therapy for other conditions. Some of these include orthopedic conditions, soft tissue injuries, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, neurogenerative diseases, and certain types of arthritis.
There is some research to suggest that stem cells could even help with treating male pattern baldness.
Other than hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) or for cancer treatment, at this point other stem cell therapies are considered experimental. They are therefore not generally covered by insurance. Stem cell therapy cost can range greatly depending on the complexity of the procedure.
Controversy Around Stem Cell Research
For the past few decades, there has been an ongoing debate about the ethics of using stem cells.
Using adult stem cells doesn’t seem to present ethical concerns. Some people, however, have protested that the way embryonic stem cells are obtained is unethical. This is because the embryo is destroyed in the process of harvesting embryonic stem cells.
People who oppose stem cell research view these embryos as living human beings. They, therefore, believe they possess human rights and shouldn’t be used for research.
Supporters of stem cell research believe that embryos have not yet become human. They also argue that these fertilized eggs would be discarded anyway.
This is one of the reasons that the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells was such a huge breakthrough. This is because it means that there might be less of a need for using human embryos in research. Without the ethical concerns of using embryonic stem cells in research, this could simplify the pathway to research for many scientists.
There is, however, another potential concern regarding induced pluripotent stem cells. This is the consideration that if these stem cells have the ability to develop into an embryo, there is the theoretical possibility that researchers could create a clone of the donor. There are many countries that have already banned human cloning through legislation.
Understanding Stem Cell Research: It’s a Living Field
The field of stem cell research is by no means a closed book. Scientists and researchers continue to grapple with the challenges and possibilities presented by these amazing cells. Around the world, stem cell research is ongoing at research institutions, hospitals, and universities.
We still have so much to learn about the way the human body works and how we can use medical treatment to help people who are suffering from diseases.
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