If you are anything like me, you were a bit clueless as to the importance of former President Obama signing the executive order to lift the ban on embryonic stem cell research. It sounded quite scientifically important, and several people were very happy about it. However, the exact reasoning behind all the hype completely missed me, so I decided to do a bit of of my own research to find out exactly why this is so important and to whom.
I figured the first thing to do was to find out exactly what stem cells are. Apparently they are cells found in multi-cellular organisms, such as humans and animals, which can renew, repair, and replicate themselves, and even transform into different types of cells. Essentially, they are smart cells. They take care of whatever needs to be done for the lifetime of the body. This includes everything from developing an embryo to regenerating blood and skin tissue, and more.
From what I understand, there are two types of stem cells: embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are best when collected during the early stages of development, ideally within the first five days. Embryonic stem cells have the ability to replicate and transform into all the specialized tissues and cell types found in adults. Due to the characteristics of the embryonic stem cells, they are ideal for use after major injuries or diseases for regenerating or replacing damaged tissue.
Adult stem cells operate as the body’s own maintenance system, handling repair, replenishment, and regeneration as needed. Embryonic stem cells are found in embryos and therefore in greater numbers than adult ones due to the concentration of them. Yet adult stem cells, found in children as well as adults, are in almost every organ of the body. The characteristics of adult stem cells make them better suited for use in bone marrow transplants, and have even been used to treat tendon and ligament injuries in horses.
The majority of the embryonic stem cell research that has happened over the last few decades has been with mice (which seems to be the research animal of choice) and humans. However, seeing as how they are two totally different species, the basic foundation for their embryonic stem cells might be the same, yet they require different environments and courses of action in order to remain in unchanged states. There are also higher levels of proteins found in human embryonic stem cells. For this reason, using the results from mouse embryonic stem cell research to treat humans is not going to work.
Although embryonic stem cells can be collected in greater amounts, as stated earlier, they only come from embryos. This means that there are limited resources from which to get the cells. The other problem is that embryos are destroyed in the process of obtaining the cells. This is what makes embryonic stem cell research so controversial. On the other hand, there are a plethora of resources from which to gain adult stem cells. In some cases they can even be obtained from the intended recipient, which nearly eliminates the threat of rejection in those cases.
The social and ethical debate regarding embryonic stem cell research comes from how the cells are created, obtained, and used. Researchers have recently determined that adult stem cells can be controlled in certain ways to produce embryonic stem cells. This would enable the creation of stem cells without destroying the embryo. Those in support of the research believe that the results have great potential to positively affect the medical field and the treatment of injuries and disease. On the other side of the argument are those that are primarily pro-life and believe that this type of research lowers the value of human life.
Researchers feel confident that if stem cell research is able to continue, they will soon be able to dramatically expand the use beyond bone marrow transplants. Potentially, treatments derived from the research could be used on wide range of human diseases and medical conditions, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. They believe that due to all the debate surrounding this type of research, the best way to get past it would be through continued public debate and research, as well as making more information readily available to the public.
Well, after learning more about stem cell research, it is clear that this is definitely a topic that affects all of us. Ultimately, it really all comes down to what’s more important: the resource or the results? Hopefully, you can now make an informed choice.