In today’s post, we will talk about what exactly stem cells are and why they are so important to generate heated debates among all kinds of circles i.e. political, social, religious, and what not? Here’s a look at some of those details.
What differentiates stem cells apart from other cells is their capability to become any other type of tissue in the body. A bone marrow stem cell, for example, can be transformed into a neuron cell or a nerve in the brain.
Generally speaking, there are 2 kinds in humans known as embryonic and non-embryonic.
Embryonic Stem Cells
They are derived out of the inner cell mass of an early-stage embryo, about 4-5 days after fertilization, consist of 50 to 150 cells.
Non-Embryonic Stem Cells
They, also known as adult stem cells, are present in the adult tissues.
The embryonic stem cells are pluripotent unlike the multipotent adult stem cells. It means that embryonic stem cells can turn into more than 220 cell types in the adult body and be able to give rise to any type of mature cell whereas adult ones can only form limited number of cell types, closely related family of cells.
Their importance lies in the fact that they can be converted into any type of other cells or tissues in the body such as neurons, pancreatic tissue, cardiac muscle cells and the like. For instance, cells harvested from the bone marrow may be used to repair damage to the heart muscle caused during a heart attack, or to correct blood disorders such as sickle cell through transfusion.
Stem cell therapy is believed to have the potential to dramatically change the treatment of human disease. Embryonic stem cell therapies have been proposed with cells for reformative drugs and tissue replacement after an injury or an ailment. But it should be noted at this point that embryonic stem cell therapy is not in use yet. It is still only at the stage where medical researchers are testing on animals. On the other hand, adult stem cell therapy has been effectively used to treat leukemia and cancers of bone and blood.
The controversy behind stem cell research refers only to research of human embryos. What is controversial is the fact that the source of research material, human embryos, is destroyed in the process of harvesting. Pro-life activists oppose research by arguing that a human embryo is a human life that has the right to protection.
Another area of controversy is that stem cell therapy is a greasy slope that can lead to reproductive cloning that can diminish the value of human life.
Production of non-embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, does not necessitate annihilation of the embryo, so it is as controversial. However, the treatment with adult stem cells carries a risk of rejection by the body’s immune system.
The Current State of Research
There are some countries that offer treatments, but in these types of stem cell therapies adult stem cells to be used are derived from only the patient’s own body, a process known as autograft. Where possible, autograft is preferred because it eliminates the risk of rejection by the recipient’s body.
There are promising researches are going on in the field to discover the treatments for diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, lung disease, arthritis, organ failure and muscle damage
Why don’t we just use adult stem cells?
In theory, the embryonic are considered to be superior as they can perform as blank biological slate while the adult ones are semi-specialized and aren’t as versatile as the ESCs.
Though the field of adult stem cells was not tarnished by the controversies, the problem is also that they are often present only in small amounts, are difficult to isolate and purify, and their numbers may decrease with age.
At this juncture, much remains to be known about the potential of embryonic stem cell therapy. But going for success in the field of animal experimentation may very well result that embryonic ones could provide solutions to many diseases in humans.
The response to the potential benefits of ESC is under investigation. To understand the benefits of embryonic stem cells therapy or any other type and to discover possible treatments in humans, several lines of research must be pursued simultaneously and only research can prove whether adult ones are better than embryonic ones to cure human diseases or vice versa. It may also arise that adult ones offer good treatments for certain ailments, while embryonic ones are better for curing others.