Stem cells play an important role in regenerative medicine, showing promise in the treatment of many debilitating diseases and injuries. Stem cell research is still fairly new, and while it promises much, it also sparks some controversy.
To fully appreciate the potential of stem cells and to navigate the debate surrounding them, we’ve created a list of inspiring examples of what this research has to offer.
If you’d like to better understand stem cell research, controversy,cancer treatment, and therapy, read on.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are special cells in humans that have the ability to develop into an array of different types of cells. The cells can become muscle cells, organ cells, and brain cells, to name a few.
Because they are able to develop into one of many different cell types, research suggests that therapies using these cells may be useful in the treatment of previously incurable medical conditions and traumatic injuries.
Types of Stem Cells
There are two types of stem cells. These are the embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
Embryonic Stem Cells
As the name suggests, embryonic stem cells used for research purposes are harvested from unused human embryos. These embryos are the product of in vitro fertilization, meaning they’re made outside of the body by combining sperm and eggs in a laboratory setting.
Embryonic stem cells are known as pluripotent cells. What this means is these cells have the potential to become one of many different types of cells.
The means by which embryonic stem cells are collected is controversial. There is much debate about the use of human embryos for harvest purposes in stem cell research.
After stem cell collection, the embryo is discarded. Those who believe that life begins at conception feel that embryo harvest is unethical.
Adult Stem Cells
Unlike embryonic stem cells, there are two different types of adult stem cells.
The first type of adult stem cell is harvested from tissues that are fully developed. This would include tissues such as bone marrow, skin, and brain. These tissues are not rich in stem cells. Also, the stem cells that found within these tissues will usually only become certain types of cells.
Induced pluripotent stem cells are the second adult stem cell type. Researchers modify these cells in a laboratory to behave similarly to embryonic stem cells. These adult stem cells appear to be the same as embryonic stem cells, yet researchers have not been able to find one with the ability to develop into every cell and tissue type. In time, as researchers learn more about what stimulates the cells into certain developmental paths, this may no longer be the case.
Stem Cell Research and Therapy
Because stem cells have the ability to become new cells, research has focused on using these cells as therapy to replace dysfunctional or damaged cells in tissues and organs. These are cells that typically do not regenerate or are affected by a disease that only creates more dysfunctional cells.
The potential for renewal from stem cell use is huge. Here are five examples of the medical promise that stem cells hold.
In patients with a severely damaged cornea, stem cells can be used to repair an injury that causes loss of sight. The cornea is the transparent layer that covers the front of the eye.
In this procedure, a surgeon takes stem cells from the limbus, which is the area of the eye situated between the iris and the sclera. These limbal stem cells can be harvested from a patient and then multiplied in a laboratory setting. After sufficient multiplication produces enough viable cells, they are then transplanted back onto the damaged eye, eventually restoring the patient’s sight.
Life-Saving Skin Replacements
Stem cells have been used for several decades to treat people who have severe, life-threatening burns. Skin stem cells are used to grow sizeable sheets of new skin that are used on patients with third-degree burns that cover large areas of their bodies.
Though the new skin doesn’t have hair, sweat glands, or oil glands, it is still a life-saving procedure for severe burn victims. Future research may improve the process, creating skin that has other necessary components.
Stem Cells and Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition in which dopamine-producing brain cells, or neurons, are damaged. This results in tremor, slow movement, rigidity of the limbs, balance and gait issues, and changes in speech and writing.
The transplantation of embryonic stem cells into Parkinson’s patients has shown promise in the treatment of the disease. These stem cells are stimulated into becoming new dopamine-producing neurons that replace damaged neurons.
Treating Cancer with Stem Cells
Aggressive chemo and radiation treatment kill a patient’s own stem cells. Doctors administer stem cells intravenously after these cancer treatments. These cells eventually settle into the bone marrow, where they then grow and develop into healthy blood cells.
This stem cell transplant, or engraftment, can be autologous (from the patient) or allogeneic (from a matched donor that is related or unrelated to the patient).
Stem Cells and Heart Disease
Heart attacks and congestive heart failure cause damage to the muscle tissue of the heart (cardiac muscle). Scientists coax these stem cells into becoming heart muscle cells. They can even beat in unison in a petri dish. These cells may eventually be able to repair nonfunctioning parts of cardiac tissue.
Stem cell research with animal subjects has shown that cardiac cell transplantation can improve cardiac function in diseased hearts. Stem cell-derived tissue patches applied to damaged areas may restore cardiac function in the future.
Stem Cell Research May Be the Future of Medicine
Stem cell research has the potential to change lives and vastly improve our understanding of the human body and its disease processes. Because they have the capacity to replace and repair, they’re entirely unique from any medical approach we have currently.
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