There has been a great deal of talk about stem cells in recent years, and you’ve almost certainly heard a debate or two on the news, in the local coffee shop, or even at your own dinner table, but what’s the real story behind these mysterious and miraculous cells?
Can they cure diseases? Are they one of the keys behind cloning? Can they help us extend our lives even further? There’s a lot of magic behind stem cells – and plenty that you’ve probably never heard of!
Stem cells – The Building Blocks of Our Body
Before we dig into all the amazing things that stem cells can do, we should start by figuring out what stem cells actually are. Basically, stem cells are the basic materials that we need to grow cells throughout our body. Stem cells are the cells that grow, divide, and mature into all the other specialized cells in our body (brain, muscle, heart, nerves, blood etc.)
No matter what type of cell you are studying or discussing, they all started as stem cells! These powerful cells are the only ones in the body that can generate different types of cells. Without them, we wouldn’t be nearly as complex or functional as human beings. You see, stem cells can also replicate into more healthy cells, speeding up regeneration after disease, or curing illnesses previously thought “untreatable”.
Where Can We Find Them?
There are a few different types of stem cells that get most of the attention. Embryonic stem cells (also known as pluripotent cells) are found in embryos at a very early stage (less than a week old). These cells can either create more stem cells or turn into any other type of cell in the body. This makes them very valuable and important for research and stem cell treatments.
Embryos aren’t the only places to find stem cells, however; adult stem cells are found in much smaller numbers throughout the body’s tissues. Scientists originally believed that adult stem cells could only replicate into the same types of cells (for example, if you found them in bone marrow, they could only lead to blood cells), but that has since been proven wrong. Adult stem cells are less versatile than embryonic stem cells, but they can still be used to regenerate and heal other types of cells.
The least well-known type of stem cells comes directly from the amniotic fluid of pregnant women, and are called perinatal stem cells. Similar to embryonic stem cells, these can change into any other type of cell, making them very valuable and fascinating for scientists and researchers.
So, if we know where to find stem cells, and are aware of what they can do for us, what’s the catch?
The Great Stem Cell Controversy
There has been a significant amount of criticism and debate about the use of stem cells, including claims that researchers are “playing God”, but the main objection is the use of embryos to extract embryonic cells (the most readily available and versatile form of stem cells). At in vitro fertilization clinics, once a man’s sperm fertilizes a woman’s egg, an early-stage embryo is formed. Stem cells can then be extracted from this embryo once it is no longer needed, as is the in vitro fertilization. These embryos were fertilized at the clinic, but never put into a woman’s uterus.
Religious and political groups have been up in arms about the use of these stem cells, but strict regulations have already been put in place concerning donation practices and applications. Critics have argued that adult stem cells should be the only ones allowed, but frankly, embryonic stem cells are more important for research, and are much more versatile at treating and curing diseases, since they can replicate into any number of specialized cells.
The Wonders of Stem Cells
Although the process does seem rather strange, more fit for a sci-fi movie than a doctor’s office, stem cells have opened up a new world for medical research and alternative treatments. Imagine that you are suffering from heart disease, and things aren’t looking good for your future. Scientists can take the stem cells they have cultivated, inject them into the diseased tissue of the heart, and allow the stem cells to naturally replicate and heal the damaged tissues. This can be far more effective than any other invasive treatment, and far less risky.
Bone marrow transplants (the common and less controversial name for stem cell transplants) can heal cells that have been damaged by chemotherapy, or those that suffer from autoimmune diseases, leukemia, and other types of serious, life-threatening conditions. Diabetes has been known to decimate the pancreas, but stem cells could potentially regenerate those damaged tissues and reduce the life-threatening dangers of diabetes.
In the research community, stem cells are also being used to test new drugs, rather than relying on human candidates; these stem cell lines can reveal the immediate and long-term effects of medication, making our pharmaceutical industry even safer.
The Next Step… Cloning?
One of the most recent and exciting developments in stem cell research is called therapeutic cloning. Yes, even the word “cloning” causes some people to pull back in fear, but this isn’t like the latest summer blockbuster starring Bruce Willis. No, in therapeutic cloning, a nucleus is removed from an unfertilized egg and the somatic cell of a donor. The donated nucleus is put into the egg and allowed to divide – forming a blastocyst. This creates a line of pure stem cells that are identical to the genetic code of the original egg.
Essentially, you have created a clone, and these pure, unfertilized stem cells are much more likely to be accepted by the host body and are even more efficient at fixing unhealthy cells. However, before you get TOO EXCITED, you should know that therapeutic cloning has not been successful in humans thus far (or at least, no one is admitting it).
For now, we’ll continue using stem cells to heal “broken hearts” and other parts of the body, but the research is ongoing, and the possibilities truly seem endless!
- Stem Cell
- The Magic Behind Stem Cells – National Center for Biotechnology Information
- Tzu Chi Medical Journal