One of the most promising and most debated new sciences is stem cell research. This remarkable science may lead to the cures for every imaginable genetic disorder; the eradication of cancer; the growth and replacement of diseased organs; the repair of previously irreparable tissues like nerves and brain cells; and many other applications, including cloning technologies.
Stem cells themselves are found in everyone. They are simply primal undifferentiated cells – that is, cells that have not specialized into a particular type of tissue – that can divide and differentiate into cell types needed by the body of the organism, often able to migrate to where they are needed. We have only begun to study the way stem cells work and can be used; the earliest work on them dates back only to the 1960s.
Unfortunately, significant problems dog stem cell research, not the least of which is the fact it might be an idea ahead of its time; there are numerous technological barriers to full implementation of stem cells that likely will only be overcome after many years of research.
How Stem Cells work
Stem cells are not an amorphous glog of cells; they seem to follow a very specific development route. Totipotent stem cells are the very first produced by the fertilized egg, and can grow into any type of cell. Pluripotent cells are descended from totipotent, and can become any type of cell but totipotent ones.
But when pluripotent cells start differentiating, they start creating multipotent stem cells which can only produce cells that are closely related within families, like blood cells or nerve cells. And unipotent cells can only produce one cell type, but can self-renew, making them different from non-stem cells.
Most adult stem cells are multipotent, the third type, which means they are very limited. However, they are also much easier to work with, and are currently being used to treat a variety of diseases, the most outstanding of which is leukemia, in which multipotent adult stem cells are found in bone marrow. These cells are also called somatic (bodily) stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells, the most controversial, are much more potent, typically totipotent, the most powerful type of stem cell. But they are also much harder to work with, and these will take decades to become a usable medical resource. What’s worse, embryonic stem cells have been under study for less than a decade. Though scientists have been experimenting with extracting necessary stem cells from embryos rather than destroying the embryo to get them, the extraction typically kills or seriously damages the embryo thus far.
Cord blood stem cells have also been used for a couple of decades to treat a variety of diseases that occur primarily in children; it is collected easily, by removing the umbilical cord and taking the blood from the umbilical vein.
Why It’s Important
Because stem cells can basically rebuild any other part of the body, it is potentially a revolutionary treatment for any disease or injury that destroys tissues. By using the most potent stem cells possible, scientists in the future may be able to regrow any tissue required, even complex tissues like a limb or a lung. And because it may be possible to replace the DNA in stem cells with your own DNA, such tissues will have no risk of rejection, which is currently the primary drawback to accepting a donated organ from someone else.
For all intents and purposes, these organs or limbs or eyes will be your own. It is impossible to emphasize how critical this potential development could be. It is not only the cure for all disease and injury, it is a realistic route to immortality.
But for this research to go forward, not only will scientists have to stop lying about the work they have done, but the entire scientific and political community will have to decide whether it wants to pursue this scientific revolution today, or delay it for future generations to pursue. For it will be pursued.
Unfortunately, today embryos must be killed in order to extract the raw material – the stem cells – from them. This forces the question of when human life begins, and whether all human life has value, or only those lives that have intelligence and will.
Another problem with the stem cell debate is that there is no legitimate reason to expect the medical community to make many of the advances it has talked about for many decades. There is no question that the potential for these advances lies in stem cells; but because embryonic stem cell research is itself still in embryonic form, there is no way to predict how far in the future real medical treatments based on stem cell research may be.
Unfortunately, many medical researchers are seizing upon this circumstance to secure funding and legitimacy for their research projects. This means that critical funding that might be applied to treatments that can help people now are instead being shunted to a very speculative form of medicine that may not produce fruit until most of us today are dead.
And this fact, when it is discovered by opponents of stem cell research, provides these opponents with fuel for the fire without addressing the real issue: whether a potential life sacrificed (often lives that would be discarded anyway) is worth the potential future gains.
Unfortunately, with such an emotional issue, it’s hard to get people to look at the facts objectively, no matter what side they are on.
On the one hand, there is no current benefit to the funds and embryos and scientific talent devoted to embryonic stem cell research. These things will not change our everyday lives for a very long time. And there is the danger of abuse of embryos inherent in the process.
On the other hand, embryonic stem cells may be our fountain of youth, our heal-all panacea, and even our hope for the continuation of our race. While these things may not change our lives today, there is no doubt that this research will change the lives of our descendants at some point. Provided, of course, that medical science allows for us to be the lucky ones who leave descendants.
It’s a tough debate, but it’s one that the human race as a whole needs to rise to decide. More than any other issue we’ve dealt with so far, this one could determine our entire future.