A Primer on Stem Cell Technology

Diseases and conditions where stem cell treatm...
Diseases and conditions where stem cell treatment is promising or emerging. (See Wikipedia:Stem cell#Treatments). Bone marrow transplantation is, as of 2009, the only established use of stem cells. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With more and more terminal diseases are being discovered through the years, more and more treatments, medical, holistic and alternative, are also being discovered. The most effective, expensive and probably the most controversial-is the stem cell technology. Multiple researches suggest a bright future in the many fields of medicine with the use of stem cell-naturally occurring cells found in all multicellular organisms that can divide and grow into different cell types and self-renew to produce more stem cells.

Stem cell therapy is a type of medical intervention that introduces stem cells into damage tissue in order to treat diseases and injuries.

Presently, what are the known sources of stem cells?

Adult stem cells can repair body systems by replenishing adult tissues, which over the years have been used to treat patients stricken with cancer such a leukemia and lymphoma. During chemotherapy, cells unhealthy and healthy are killed by the cytotoxic agents. A bone marrow aspirated from a donor ( from the hips, with the use of anesthesia) is then transplanted  into a patient’s body to reverse the side effects of chemotherapy – a healthy bone marrow is supposed to reintroduce functional stem cells to the body. If the transplant is successful, the stem cells will migrate into the patient’s bone marrow and begin producing new, healthy leukocytes to replace the abnormal cells.

A small amount of stem cells are also present in the bloodstream and these peripheral blood stem cells, or PBSCs, can also be used to treat leukemia, other cancers and various blood disorders. Though less invasive,  PBSC treatments can become challenging because stem cells are lesser in the bloodstream, so collecting an ample amount will be difficult.

The disadvantage, though, of using adult stem cells is that these stem cells can only replicate cells with similar characteristics, and are generally limited to evolving into different cell types of the same tissue origin, thereby limiting treatments, presently, to diseases of the blood.

Scientists are exploring the possibility of bone marrow stem cells growing cell types of different tissues such as the liver and the muscles,  but that may take time.

Adult stem cells are also prone to rejection by the recipients’s body’s immune system. Adult stem cells have developed features that can be recognized  and attacked by the recipients’ immune system.

There are other stem cell sources, but these are sources that several social groups have frowned upon. You can get stem cells newborn babies’s umbilical cords. The umbilical cord stem cells are currently used to treat and restore the blood system after treatment from several cancers. Fetal stem cells, as the name suggests, are stem cells derived from a fetus (a developing baby  of less than 10 weeks of gestation. Though fetal stem cells are tissue-specific and can only replicate cell types within the particular tissue of organ, these stem cells have rapid growth and development of organs.

What’s probably causing the most stir in the medical society are stem cells derived from very early embryos. Embryonic stem cells, in theory, can develop into any cell type in the body. Present stem cell studies obtained stem cells from terminated pregnancies or have from embryos produced by in-vitro fertilization clinics. Once extracted, the cells are then grown into a laboratory and kept for future use.  Scientists are also looking into copying or cloning embryos specifically for their stem cells.

It has become controversial because it has divided international organizations. Few states in the US have no restricted funding against stem cell research, in fact, the current administration supports responsible stem cell research.  Some are not so supportive, as stem cells are obtained from destroyed embryos, and the concerns  are to those surrounding abortion. The most prominent global opponent of this research is the Catholic Church although many individual American Catholics do not take this view.

Controversial or not, there’s still a lot to discover in the field of stem cell technology, but with the way men hunger for new knowledge and ways to improve and ease life, it looks like it’s not gonna take that long. Although, if this technology indeed surpasses the ethical dilemma it is currently facing, how soon will it be available to everyone? And at what costa? The future can be either bleak or bright, depending on what you’re looking at.

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