A New Era of Ethical Stem Cell Research

Stem cell research has been on the front line of controversy and debate in newspapers and classrooms alike for as long as we can all remember. Although doctors have been performing red bone marrow stem cell transplants for decades, the controversy surrounding stem cells did not ensue until 1998 when researchers discovered how to remove stem cells from human embryos.

This new discovery caused the scientific world to buzz with excitement. Finally, there was the potential to cure human diseases that would otherwise take over and destroy the human body. Although some in the scientific community were ready to change the world of medicine, other coming from religious backgrounds also started buzzing, and the controversy of stem cell research started. The controversy centers around the moral implications of destroying human embryos and how, or if, it should be regulated.

The controversy and debate over the use and research of human stem cells may be over thanks to a new breakthrough that allows scientists to stimulate a patient’s own cells to act like embryonic cells, called induced stem cells. Induced stem cells are generated from skin and blood cells from adults. These new cells are decreasing the need to use human embryonic stem cells in research, opening up new possibilities and therapies for humans.

Until very recently, the only way to get pluripotent stem cells, which are cells that can turn into any other type of cell that surrounds it, was to remove the inner mass of an embryo and put it in a petri dish. The thought of this is unsettling to many, even if the embryo is only five days old. Early embryonic stem cell research raised ethical questions that started a divide. When does life start? Is an embryo equivalent to a child? Does the destruction of one embryo become justified if it will provide countless cures and therapies for others? These questions demanded answers and, because of this, research became harder to construct. With the new method that scientists have discovered to stimulate a patient’s own stem cells, many of these ethical questions are not posed because no embryos are being used. 

So far, induced stem cells seem to work just as effectively as human embryonic stem cells, but more time and more research is needed for this to become conclusive. Induced stem cells are derived from adult blood or skin cells that are then reprogrammed back into embryonic-like stem cells that can develop into any type of human cell. Stem cells can be prodded into becoming anything you want them to be. Blood cancer? Stem cells become new cancer-free blood cells. Diabetes? Stem cells become beta islet cells that produce insulin, curing diabetes. Neurological disease? Stem cells can become new neurons to reverse the disease’s adverse effects. The possibilities are endless when it comes to stem cells because they are a literal blank slate our bodies can use to heal itself.

Pluripotent stem cells are also able to be used as a regenerative tool. These cells can be used to grow specialized cells that can exactly match a person so that they would not be rejected by their immune system, which is a fatal effect of some transplants. The future applications for induced stem cells are almost limitless, and some of the applications have already been, or are in the process of being tested. 

In a condition known as osteoporosis, the bones become brittle and thin, leading to back, hip and joint pain, along with frequent fractures and breaks, causing disability and, in extreme cases, even death. Researchers at the University of Toronto and the Ottawa Hospital injected rats with osteoporosis with skeletal stem cells to see if stem cell therapy could treat the thinning of bone. Researchers found that the skeletal stem cells could become bone cells and, after six months, the research team found that healthy, functional bone had replaced the osteoporotic bone. Researchers hope that osteoporosis can be reversed in humans in the near future as it did in the rats. 

Even more amazing than reversing and curing diseases, induced stem cells are being used to grow organs. You read that right, grow organs. The most fascinating being the tiny beating hearts that are functioning as test subjects for different medications to ensure the safest medicines possible. Scientists have begun turning stem cells into cardiovascular cells, liver cells and kidney cells which will soon eliminate the need for risky transplants.

Although there is still controversy circling around the subject of stem cell research, the scientific community has made it clear that this research is the future to medicine. By creating a new way to develop these blank slates from preexisting adult skin and blood cells, scientists have eliminated much of the negative stigma that many people have against it. The strides that scientists and doctors have made using these cells have made cures for diseases possible, and has the potential to do so much more. The future applications of induced stem cells is endless and, within the next thirty years, we could be seeing major changes in the way we fight against diseases and other conditions. In the year 2016, stem cells are being created by preexisting cells from human adults, not embryos, meaning the time of stigma and controversy is finally ending and we can all look forward to a more progressive, effective future.

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