Authored by Sylvia Cochran in Medical Science
Published on 10-04-2009
In the unholy trinity of controversial topics – abortion and religion being the first two – stem cell research represents the third issue that is sure to get a rise out of people. Proponents and opponents alike are steadfast in their beliefs and before long debaters are so locked in that rational discussion ceases. It is interesting to note that at least some of the hot points actually do not have to be issues of debate at all.
What Are Stem Cells?
In simplest terms, stem cells are the kind of building blocks that act as wild card in the creation of tissues. They may become any tissue or organ, depending on the conditions in which they exist. This makes them a theoretical cure-all for organ damage. Such damage may be associated with injuries, cancer, strokes and also hereditary diseases. Malfunctioning organs may be repaired through healthy tissue growth spurred on by guided stem cells.
Why Is There Controversy?
The bone of discontentment is the origin of stem cells. Thus far, a good many stem cells were taken from human embryos three to five days after egg fertilization. Removal of the stem cells equals destruction of the embryo. Thus, pro-life supporters argue that a potential child is killed in the process. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that many of the embryos used for stem cell procurement are actually cloned. Visions of the creation of a slave race for the distinct purpose of organ and cell harvesting keep more than one stem cell research opponent awake.
Yet in recent studies it was discovered that adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells actually act quite similar, and the removal of adult stem cells does not kill the individual. This could have allowed pro-life and pro abortion supporters to at least put this aspect of the controversy to rest, were it not for the fact that some organs lack stem cells altogether. This effectively shuts the door on the therapeutic aspects of stem cell research, unless embryonic stem cells are used.
The Current Scope of Stem Cell Research
Stem cell research is already showing some results. Bone marrow transplants and also cord blood transplants offer healing for some diseases. Nevertheless, because of legal and ethical considerations – as well as wrangling over patents, profits, and funding – stem cell research is progressing slower than many scientists would like. This is why an estimate as to when stem cell research might actually yield widespread application is still not possible. At this point in time, stem cell research focuses primarily on creating high quality stem cell lines and translating them into viable organ tissues.
That being said, there is a second problem that also may slow down the research: once viable tissues are grown, they must be observed over prolonged periods of time to ensure that no sudden degeneration takes place. In addition to the foregoing, only human trials can positively prove whether the implantation of human stem cells – adult or embryonic – will heal the body over the long term.