- What is a stem cell?
A stem cell is an undifferentiated cell. Its function in the body is undetermined; it has not specialized (or differentiated) to a specific type of cell, for example, a muscle cell or skin cell. Stem cells typically come from either embryos created in the embryonic phase of development or adult tissue, one example being bone marrow. Stem cells differ from other cells in the body because they can renew themselves through cell division. The new stem cells created can be caused to become specialized into tissue-specific cells or organ-specific cells.
In medicine, stem cells have become increasingly popular because they can form any tissue, thus enabling potential treatments in the medical field. Stem cells are used in various ways, but particularly for transplants. A specific case is for people with leukemia or other blood disorders; this is known as a bone marrow stem cell transplant; the most common stem cell used today and has been used for the past forty years. The stem cells from the patient or donor are transplanted into the bone marrow, also known as hematopoietic stem cells, or in the bloodstream, also known as peripheral blood stem cells.
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The process of this bone marrow stem cell transplant begins with chemotherapy to kill the abnormal cancer cells and the normal cells present in the bone marrow. Then, the new hematopoietic stem cells given to the patient via blood transfusion begin to produce new, healthy blood cells in a matter of a few days. Stem cells for transplants such as these are obtained from either adult tissue such as bone marrow; or from multicellular embryos such as embryos created during in vitro fertilization, embryos created in somatic cell nuclear transfer, germ cells or organs of an aborted fetus or from the blood cells of the umbilical cord after birth. In order for these stem cells to perform their job in the affected area, they are “delivered” to the patients through intravenous injections.
- Why is the medical profession excited about stem cell technology?
The potential of stem cells in the medical field is continuously growing, with discoveries constantly being made. Because stem cells can specialize and form any tissue-or-organ-specific cell, some doctors and scientists prefer using stem cells for other medical forms. For example, inout bone marrow stem cell transplants, this method of transplanting hematopoietic stem cells to a patient’s bone marrow has been proven prosperous various times.
This is due to the stem cell’s ability to regenerate and create new hematopoietic cells, while at the same time killing off and replacing the abnormal cells causing leukemia. Though chemotherapy has similar effects on the bone marrow, it not only kills the cancerous cells but kills the bone marrow as well, thus resulting in stem cell bone marrow transplantation being the more effective method. Stem cell operations have proved successful as well, particularly with a ten-year-old girl suffering from a blockage in her hepatic portal vein. Doctors in Sweden used her own stem cells to grow a vein to replace the obstructed one, and as a result, the new vein restored blood flow.
Since the stem cells used to grow the vein were the patient’s own stem cells, there was no chance of rejection by the body – another advantage to stem cell transplant and operation. Rejection is usually an issue faced when patients have whole organs from a donor replaced in their bodies. The immune system may not respond to the new organ, thus destroying the organ. However, if the stem cells used are from the patient’s body, there is no chance of rejection by the immune system.
- What are the potential disadvantages of using stem cells in medicine?
Though stem cells have proven useful in the medical field, there are disadvantages involved as well. Specifically for bone marrow stem cell transplants, if the stem cell used is from a non-genetically identical donor, there are chances of contracting Graft Versus Host Disease (GFHD). This is caused by the newly transplanted stem cells regarding the patient’s body as “foreign” and thus attacking the body, proving the transplant unsuccessful.
Another disadvantage to stem cell transplants is the chemotherapy radiation done prior to the transplantation; it makes the patient feel sick as well as lowers their immune systems, making them susceptible to infection. Cost-wise, stem cells transplants can get very expensive, costing up to $200,000; consequently, the majority of the population would not be able to afford the treatment, thus not putting the research done to good use.
- What do you think about stem cell research?
Stem cells are not only considered medically, but ethically as well. Issues have risen from the beginning of stem cell research, mainly surrounding the harvesting of the cells and embryonic stem cell research. In 2006, George W. Bush, president of the United States, vetoed a bill allowing federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Believing that destroying human embryos in the name of science was immoral because to him, destroying embryos was destroying children.
However, in 2009, Barack Obama removed the ban, arguing that in order to move forward in scientific research, closing off options that have great potential shouldn’t be done. Bush and Obama represent the general argument for and against stem cell research. Personally, like Obama, I believe that stem cells play a major role in developing cures for various diseases like Parkinson’s disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and more.
Though I can understand Bush’s view that embryos are considered “children,” and destroying embryos to harvest stem cells may appear immoral, I believe that the good outweighs the bad in this situation. If developing a cure for cancer means sacrificing embryos, I feel that it is worth it. Because the embryos of the future – the children of the future – may grow up in a world potentially with cures for cancer or Parkinson’s disease, and that, in my opinion, would be a huge step forward.
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