If you know what a stem cell is, you can then see the potential in medicine of self-replicating cells that can help with treatments, diseases and more. Read our brief guide to stem cell therapy and find out more.
Most cells in the body are called specialised cells in that they carry out very specific roles, nerve cells are a good example of this. Stem cells are different as they can self-renew and can produce specialised cells. There are different types of stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells can in fact turn into almost any type of cell in the body, but after embryonic devopment we stop producing these type of stem cells naturally. Hematopoietic stem cells are an adult stem cell made in the bone marrow, these have an ability to produce the different cells found in the blood, including immune cells. Then there are Mesenchymal stem cells, they are usually taken from the bone marrow, skin and fat tissue. They can produce many different types of cells.
So commonly stem cells come from two main sources, embryos and adult tissue. Adult stem cells are generally thought to be limited in their ability to differentiate based on their tissue of origin. Embryonic stem cells are derived from a 4 or 5 day old human embryo that is in the blastocyst phase. These embryos are usually extras that have been created in IVF clinics but never got implanted.
Once extracted from either adult tissue or an embryo the cells are placed in a controlled culture that prevents them from further specialising but allows them to divide and replicate.
Once stem cells start to divide and propagate, the collection of these healthy undifferentiated cells is called a stem cell line. Embryonic stem cells are then able to differentiate into more cell types than adult stem cells, hence they are often seen as more valuable.
Because stem cells have the ability to self-renew and produce other types of cells they have the potential to help treat a number of different diseases. The disease of Multiple Sclerosis is a good example here. In this case the harmful immune cells that attack the brain and spinal chord are removed and then stem cells are used to effectively re grow the immune system.
In 2013 researchers in Massachusetts created blood vessels in laboratory mice using human stem cells. They felt that the new cells created were just as good as the natural ones. These could be used to help repair or regenerate blood vessels so helping people with cardiovascular and vascular diseases.
Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s could also benefit from stem cells in that they could replenish damaged tissue bringing back the specialized brain cells. Stem cells are also considered in cancer treatments, including leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma.
Other areas of interest for stem cell research for scientists include organ and tissue regeneration. As the demand for organs outweighs the number that are donated this is one of the most popular possible uses of stem cells. Stem cells could in theory be used to grow a particular type of tissue or organ.
Stem cells are also not just important in the possible treatment of diseases, they could also help us to understand more about human development. Of particular interest to scientists is the role that genes play in determining what genetic traits or mutations we receive. Research may also help develop new drugs as stem cells could be used to measure new drugs rather than having to rely on human volunteers.
The real controversy relating to stem cell research is primarily centred on embryonic stem cell research. In 1998 researchers first extracted human embryonic stem cells which were then kept alive in a laboratory. What was controversial is that the human fertilized egg was not given the chance to develop into a fully developed human.
The core of the debate is to decide when life begins. If you believe that life begins at fertilisation then an embryo has the same status as a fully grown human being. So removing the blastocyst to extract stem cells for some people is the same as murder. For others life begins when organs start to develop, but it is an ongoing debate and source of controversy.
Some people also object to chimeras which is an organism that has both human and animal cells. In stem cell research human cells are inserted into animals and allowed to develop. This allows researchers to see what happens to the stem cells but for many this raises objections to an organism that is part human.
Legally the situation varies in different countries. To date the production of stem cell lines is illegal in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany and Ireland but allowed in Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK.
Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stem-cell_therapy
Treatments using stem cells - http://www.macmillan.org.uk/
FDA warns about Stem Cell Claims - http://www.fda.gov/