President Obama’s stance on stem cell research has reignited the controversy and brought this arcane field of research back into the limelight. A lot of folks are wondering what exactly is stem cell research and what the heck this hullabaloo is all about. Well worry not, I have brought you the Stem Cell 101 right here and I’ll try to do my best to explain it in layman’s terms.
Lets start with the fundamental question – What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are exceptional cells compared to their regular normal brethren cells. These special cells can evolve into many different cell types in the body such as heart muscle cells, brain cells, and skin cells depending on what we want them to be.
Now lets get down to the classification of stem cells.Â Basically, broadly speaking there are two kinds of stem cells:
1. Adult Stem Cells
2. Embryonic Stem Cells
So now lets understand a bit about both of these kinds of cells. Lets take the Adult Stem Cells first.
Adult Stem Cells, as the name suggest are a provision of stem cells that can reproduce when needed to repair adult organs and tissue. Adult stem cells are usually found to be proliferating in the human body and specifically in the umbilical cord blood.
And if you have followed popular media like movies or books involving this subject matter, then perhaps you would recall the most popular source of adult stem cells in the body is bone marrow. However in general adult stem cells exist in plenty of organs and tissues.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Adult variant of stem cells are more, I guess the right term here is focused, since they belong to a specific family of cells such as blood cells (blood cell cord stem), nerve cells etc.
Given the definition of Adult Stem Cells, I bet figuring out about Embryonic Stem Cells wouldn’t be that hard. So lets take a quick look at this beast now.
Embryonic Stem Cells are basically found in less than two week old embryo. Embryonic stem cells are considered the most dynamic of the two kinds of Stem Cells. The reason for this is not hard to find. The cells which are so young can be evolved into any kind of cell at a later stage. Including fetal or adult. This feature of Embryonic Stem Cells attracts a lot of doctors since there is much more potential of regenerative research in this.
Now that we have studied what the different types of cells are, you might be curious to know what the fuss is about. Well let me lay out the Stem Cell Research History for you:
Even though its detractors might like to give the impression that this research is something which started only recently with the coming of liberals etc., that’s not the reality. Stem cell research has been going on since 1800’s and is as old as modern medicine. The history is described by some medical professionals in poetic terms like benign etc. Ever since the discovery that certain cells could regenerate themselves, the medical professionals have been attracted towards them and have been fiddling with it.
The research has been conducted on both, animals as well as humans, with certain specific studies in areas like umbilical cord stem cell research, stem cell transplants, coculture breast cells mesenchymal stem cells etc. So its the question of trading of ethics vs the benefits in some cases. Lets look into that aspect now.
Where Do Stem Cells Come From
Now what poses the moral and ethical dilemma for medical community is, where to get the stem cells from. In the case of adults, well you can take an adult, cut him up and grab the required cells. But what about a 2 week or less old embryo? Where do get that from. And what do you do with it once you have taken your batch of cells. That’s what this debate is all about and is making the conservatives, anti-abortionist brigade fuming at its mouth.
What Parts of the Human Body Contain Stem Cells
So basically what the researchers do is, if a women is getting an abortion, they get the embryo from her and use it to further the study of science. Does it sound moral? Ethical? That’s the kind of questions and answers the society is still grappling with. Especially the devout church going one.
Benefits of stem cell research – Now there are some who would use the means and ends argument to justify or deny this practice. But basically when once discusses the issue, and weighs the different pros and cons, this is what one arrives at.
Pros and Cons of Stem Cell Research
1. How the knowledge will be used
2. Concerns about the methods
Pros of Stem Cell Research:
1. The benefits of stem cell research have such a great outcome, that it outweighs the ethical issues. (Cost-benefit-analysis)
2. If someone is going to have an abortion, isn’t it better that we use it for something useful?
3. Adult stem cells would not be that interesting because they do not have the same properties as stem cells from a fetus.
4. Another often mentioned advantage is that this research would give great insights about the basics of the body.
Cons of Stem Cell Research:
1. Critics against stem cell research say that the means do not justify the ends. (Benefits are not justified by the ethics).
2. Even an unborn life is still a life and should never be compromised. A fertilized human egg should be valued as a human life even if it is barely weeks old. Killing human life in the hopes of advancing another human life is not ethical is not something a man should have to decide.
3. We should (and will) develop more ethical methods (such as using adult stem cells) which will enable us to research ethically. We should wait to those methods are available.
4. The scientific value has been over exaggerated or has flaws. E.g. Docs do not know whether we can use stem cells to clone organs.
Is all this fuss worth it? Then you have to peep into the benefits of it, so lets take a look there:
Benefits of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Basically this science of Stem cell research can possibly help doctors in finding cures for a range of medical problems that otherwise may not have any cure.
- Spinal Cord Injuries
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Replace or Repair Damaged Organs
- Birth Defects
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Heart Diseases, Stroke and Diabetes (Type 1)
- Reduced Risk of Transplantation (You could possibly get a copy of your own heart in a heart-transplantation in the future)
What are your views regarding this? Do you think we should continue to exist the way God made us, or should we seek to advance the science in the endevor to find a perfect physical specimen of a human being.