What’s the deal with stem cells anyway? Stem cells are special body cells that have the potential to become one of many different types of organs or tissues, such as bone, heart, or brain and spinal cord. This is a very exciting area of research in the field of medicine. It is possible that stem cells could be used to repair injuries to the body, or to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, diabetes, and countless other problems.
Stem cells have been identified in their natural state, and very recently, they have been created by modifying genes in normal adult skin cells. Stem cells from different sources vary in their ability to transform into other tissues. The ones with the most potential are gotten from very young embryos, 3 to 5 days old. At this stage of development, the embryo is composed of about 150 cells, each of which has the ability to become any part of the body. But the fact that this is a developing human life raises moral and ethical questions about the use of embryos for research purposes. People are divided about 50 - 50 in this regard. In general, people who favor abortion also favor the use of embryos in stem cell research, while those opposed to abortion are more respectful of their humanity. Because of the great potential for stem cells to be useful treatments, these moral and ethical questions will have to be addressed by us as a society.
Other sources of stem cells besides human embryos include umbilical cord blood, amniotic fluid, and a few are found in normal adult tissues. And as I mentioned before, researchers late last year were able to create stem cells from adult skin cells by modifying their genes. This is very exciting because it avoids the ethical questions about experimenting on developing human life.
As you can see, all of this holds great promise, and the field is just getting started. In the future we might be able to regenerate tissues that have been injured or diseased. We might be able to clone organs for transplantation. Regenerated or replaced tissues and organs would cure diseases and restore normal function.
In the next installment, I will focus on the current state of the art of stem cell research in the area of Parkinson’s disease. Stay tuned.