The use of stem cells in the treatment of disease is a white-hot issue which causes scientists, politicians, and church-people to get hot under the collar. Church people especially are troubled by what it means to continue research, they would see it as meddling with life and how life is created. But is this true?
What is so special about stem cells?
There are two properties which make stem cells interesting to researchers. They have the ability to grow into different types of cells; a stem cell can become a brain cell or it can become a blood cell or any other type of cell. In addition, a stem cell can divide for as long as the person concerned is living.
These two qualities promise to open plenty of opportunities for researchers and a line of questions for the rest of us.
Adult stem cells
The first source of cell stems is from a patient who is suffering from a major disease such as Parkinson’s, or a spinal injury or diabetes for example. These are known as adult stem cells and are found in small numbers in adult tissues.
The issue with adult stem cells is the volume – will there be enough to deal with the issue? Another issue is whether or not an adult stem cell can turn into any type of cell other than where it came from. Cells taken from bone marrow would produce blood cells, healthy ones, but they would not become a brain cell.
As the name suggests these cells are removed from embryos – that is human embryos. These cells have both qualities mentioned above. They can become any cell. The problems with embryonic cells are where they are drawn from. These are not a patient’s cells but ones taken from elsewhere.
Adult cells engineered to be more like embryonic cells
The use of embryonic cells is the cause of much of the debate. Little wonder that scientists who decided not to wait for the debate to end have genetically engineered regular adult cells to become stem cells. Effectively what happens is they the cell is reprogrammed to become a stem cell.
If this works, it sidesteps the ethical concerns and because it is the patient’s own cells which are used, their own immune system will not reject them which is a potential with cells from an alternative source.
Perinatal stem cells
Stem cells have been found in amniotic fluid – this direction of research is much newer and as yet still very uncertain. But it is sure to have the same issues, if not more than using embryonic stem cells.
Why does it matter – ethically?
The arguments against stem cell research are mostly religious or philosophical. Those who believe that life starts at the moment of conception argue against stem cell research as it destroys what they see as life. Hopefully, the recent developments in genetic engineering can side-step the issues and help us get to a cure for these serious diseases.