For me, when I hear the words “stem cell” it’s usually followed shortly after by “research”. I have a very high-level concept of what it means. I know it cures diseases and can be beneficial, and I know it’s controversial. Why? That I am not sure.
So, what is a stem cell?
It is a cell that leads to the growth of other cells – therefore, other cells stem from it. There are two types: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
We’ll start with adult stem cells. These are found all over the body from our brain, to bone marrow, cartilage, and skin. These cells typically are taken from our own body and are multipotent. Multipotent refers to the cells ability to reproduce more cells, and in particular, the ability for it to only produce cells which are closely related to it. For example, bone marrow cells can only produce from cells which are in its “family” such as bone cells, cartilage cells, and fat cells. Since these cells are taken from our own body, they have less chance of being rejected by our immune system. Adult stem cells have been used for therapeutic reasons for over 30 years now.
Stem cells (embryonic or adult) can greatly aid in regenerating certain damaged parts or our body. They can divide and renew themselves over time, and therefore help rejuvenate certain areas of our body. For example, degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cancer could benefit from placing stem cells in the part of the person’s body that has been most ravaged by the disease. Of course, science is still working on this, and it is not always possible.
Now let’s take a look at embryonic cells. After we take a look at what they are, it will be easier to see the controversy over them. Embryonic cells typically come from fertilized eggs that have been thrown out after a fertility treatment or were aborted. The stem cells actually come from the blastocyst which is a 5-day old fertilized egg that has divided its cells. These cells within the blastocyst are pluripotent as opposed to the adult stem cells which are multipotent. Pluripotent cells can grow into any type of cell in the body. Hence, they can seem like a scientific treasure mine. It has only been in the last 20 years that scientists have been able to study these cells and cultivate them. Still, we don’t know much about embryonic cells.
So the controversy comes from the fact that these cells are taken from fertilized eggs, and so it holds moral obligations. When does it count as a human being? Is it ethical to do this?
This is a very broad overview, and I haven’t gone into any of the details regarding costs of research, legislation on methods and procedures, or medical benefits. But from what you do know, what are your thoughts on stem cell research?