Stem cells are a very unique group of cells in our body that have the ability to multiply into new stem cells, or form specialised cells with specific functions. The cells divide to form more cells, called daughter cells, or become specialised cells – such as heart muscle cells, brain cells, blood cells, or bone cells. They are often likened to ‘raw materials’ as they generate all other cells with these specific functions. We are born with stem cells at birth, and they are the reason why we form into such complex beings, with different types of tissues, organs and systems throughout the body.
Where Are Stem Cells Found?
From a research perspective, watching how new stem cells develop gives scientists and doctors a better understanding of how certain diseases develop. Using this research, one of the most exciting aspects of stem cells came to light, which is their ability to generate healthy cells that replace diseased cells. Research is continuously being produced into guiding stem cells to form specific cells and regenerate damaged cells or tissues in humans.
Stem cells can be found in adults as well as embryos from around 5 days old. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, which means they can become any type of cell in the body. It is this versatile cell that can be used to regenerate diseased tissue and organs. Until recently, scientists thought that adult stem cells didn’t have this property, but evidence suggests that adult stem cells from the bone marrow may form into other types of cell such as bone, heart or muscle cells. With this discovery, clinical trails are now underway into its usefulness in humans, as well as the potential treatment of heart disease and neurological conditions. Perinatal stem cells can also originate from the blood in the umbilical cord, however there is little research done on this type of cell.
What Diseases & Conditions Have Stem Cells Been Used For So Far?
Stem cell transplants have been used for a plethora of conditions since research began. They have been used to regenerate the damaged cells that occur during chemotherapy treatments, and help the immune system to fight off various types of cancer and blood related diseases.
In clinical trials, stem cells have been used to replace neurones damaged by spinal cord injuries or strokes, or in Parkinson’s and Alzheimers disease. They can also be used to produce insulin to help those suffering with diabetes, or produce heart muscle cells that could repair damage after a heart attack. Currently in early clinical trials, is a potential for them help regenerate cells in the eye for people who have lost their eyesight.
Stem cells have also been used to help regrowth of certain features, such as ears or noses. Particularly documented in the media has been the growing of a new nose onto a forehead or back of the arm, to replace ones damaged by accident or infection.
Progress of Stem Cell Research
There are ongoing clinical trials using embryonic stem cells, and have been in recent years. Wide scale results won’t be available until the the treatment has been found to be safe and effective, which could take years. Reportedly, a frustrating factor for researchers during clinical trials, is achieving negative results due to the lab environment being managed poorly. Stem cells by nature are reactive, and need to be in a very controlled environment to be able to function effectively. Rather than the stem cells themselves being unable to make a positive impact, it is supposedly common for the study to be compromised due to the stem cells not being able to work effectively in their environment, and therefore the trial can fail to progress to the next stage due to negative results. In adults, stem cells in the body can become damaged or develop abnormalities, due to environmental factors such as toxins, or poor diet, which compromises their efficacy.
At present there is a lot of buzz around stem cell therapy, and the potential it has to treat such a wide range of conditions. However, some people are wary about the hype of stem cell treatment as there can in some cases be complications. In the case of embryonic stem cells, it is possible for them to trigger an immune response, which can reject the stem cells because they are deemed a foreign body. It may also cause the stem cells to multiply uncontrollably, which can lead to formation of tumours or to form different specialised cells than the ones desired. In recent years, stem cell ‘tourism’ has become increasingly popular, and can involve travel to countries where companies offer stem cell therapy that is under-tested or completely un-tested, in exchange for thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of pounds. The treatment usually does not guarantee significant results, and can even be potentially dangerous if the stem cells used are rejected by the body.
Controversy of Embryonic Stem Cells
As you can imagine, in the case of embryonic stem cells there are ethical issues surrounding their use. This type of stem cells are derived from eggs fertilised in vitro, but never implanted into a woman’s uterus. Although these stem cells are donated with informed consent from donors, there are now new guidelines from the National Institutes of Health that researchers must follow.
In the early 2000s in America, President Bush commissioned a budget for embryonic stem cell therapy, but being pro-life his stance was to limit research to pre-existing lines of embryonic stem cells. This would mean using only the embryonic stem cells in existence for studies, rather than using brand new ones. While this tackles the ethical issue by no longer obtaining fresh stem cells, these lines of stem cells can be more predisposed to damage and if used in patients can increase their risk of diseases, such as cancer. Recent advances in synthetic biology now enables researchers to generate tissues with very similar attributes to earliest stage human embryos. However, although these ‘pluripotent’ stem cells can share features of embryos, they do not follow a standard development of a typical embryo. Embryonic stem cells are the preferred source of study that researches like to use, as they do not contain the abnormalities that adult stem cells do.
Some researchers are using the stem cells of a foetus dying of natural causes and clone the stem cells over and over, to firstly avoid the ethical issues with using embryonic stem cells. This type of cell do not cause an immune response, the body won’t attack or reject the cells, and they can be used on anyone due to the modified versatility.
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