Stem Cell Research and Your Health
One day, stem cell research could treat and prevent an astounding array of ailments—from
Why Are Stem Cells Important?
Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can renew themselves for long periods of time, and when necessary, develop into any kind of cell in the human body. Scientists typically work with two types of stem cells:
- Adult stem cells—In our bodies, adult stem cells stand ready to repair tissue when it is damaged by normal wear and tear or disease.
- Embryonic stem cells—In embryos that are a few days old, embryonic stem cells give rise to all the different cells of the human body.
Researchers have also discovered other sources of stem cells—embryonic germ cells and amniotic fluid stem cells.
Why Are Scientists Excited About Embryonic Stem Cells?
Scientists believe that embryonic stem cells offer enormous medical and scientific potential. In the future, embryonic stem cells could be used to:
Replace Diseased Cells
If scientists can direct stem cells’ specialization process, they may be able to use embryonic stem cells to treat a wide range of ailments. For example, Parkinson’s disease is a common disorder marked by tremors and loss of muscle control. It is caused by the loss of certain brain cells. Stem cells could be used to replace those lost cells. In fact, Parkinson’s disease may be one of the first diseases treatable by stem cell transplantation. Early studies confirm that stem cells can be directed to produce the cells needed by Parkinson’s patients.
Stem cells may also be used in the treatment of
Stem cells could also be used in the treatment of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries, liver disease,
Better Understand Human Biology
Understanding how humans develop into tremendously complex creatures will help scientists correct “errors” that can happen during this process—for example, cancer or birth defects.
Create Tissue for Medical Therapies
Today, organ transplants give people suffering from certain diseases a new life. But organ donors are in short supply. One day, scientists may be able to use embryonic stem cells to help repair damaged organs or even grow a new organ.
What Are the Ethical and Legal Concerns?
No one argues about the promise of embryonic stem cell research. But embryonic stem cells are currently most often derived from 5- to 7-day-old embryos. The embryos are created outside of a woman’s body (“ in vitro ”) for reproductive purposes and are donated for research when no longer needed. Gathering embryonic stem cells destroys the embryo, a process which some believe is killing a person.
When does life begin? Do human embryos have legal rights? Though not unique to the stem cell debate, these are serious ethical and legal questions that must be addressed.
Why Can’t Scientists Just Use Adult Stem Cells?
Currently, adult stem cell use is limited for several reasons. Adult stem cells exist in very small quantities in the body and are difficult to isolate. Adult stem cells may not have the same capacity as embryonic stem cells to multiply in the laboratory, and they may only be able to develop into certain kinds of tissues. So scientists are very interested in investigating embryonic stem cells. While initial reports suggested that adult stem cells might be useful in certain treatments, such as helping the heart recover better after a
Are Stem Cells Used in Current Treatments?
Stem cell research is a very new area, even though doctors have used stem cells in
What Is the Future for Stem Cell Research?
President Bush’s stem cell policy allows federal funding for research with stem cell “lines” (cells that can be grown in the laboratory) created before August 2001. The policy prohibits scientists from creating new lines.
Critics claim that President Bush’s stem cell policy impedes life-saving research and allows private companies—who are under no obligation to publicize research results—to dominate the field. Others believe that the policy encourages “embryo farming” and weakens respect for early life.
In the meantime, some researchers have secured private funding to finance their embryonic stem cell research. In addition, stem cell research can be founded by individual states with state money if appropriate state laws are established.
Ongoing public debate is needed to resolve these issues. Until then, stem cell research offers many promises and many questions.
US National Institutes of Health
Stem Cell Information
US National Institutes of Health
Parkinson Society Canada
Stem Cell Research
Canadian Institutes of Health Research
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Monitoring stem cell research. The President's Council on Bioethics website. Available at: http://bioethics.gov/reports/stemcell/index.html . Published January 2004. Accessed June 16, 2008.
The promise of stem cells: from research to medical therapies. The National Academies website. Available at: http://books.nap.edu/html/stem_cells/reportbrief.pdf . Accessed June 16, 2008.
Research ethics and stem cells. Stem Cell Information website. Available at: http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/ethics.asp . Updated December 2007. Accessed August 14, 2008.
Sonntag KC, Sanchez-Pernaute R. Tailoring human embryonic stem cells for neurodegenerative disease therapy. Curr Opin Investig Drugs . 2006;7:614-518.
Stem cell information. National Institutes of Health website. Available at: http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics . Accessed June 16, 2008.
Stem cells help heart beat better after attack. Reuters Health website. Available at: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_18819.html . Published July 9, 2004. Accessed July 11, 2004.
Stem cells: medicine's new frontier. MayoClinic.com website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stem-cells/CA00081 . Accessed June 16, 2008
Stem cells: scientific progress and future research directions. Department of Health and Human Services website. Available at: http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/scireport . Published June 2001. Accessed June 16, 2008.
Last reviewed June 2008 by
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