Stem Cell Research: Adult and Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Understanding The Issue

Stem cell research
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Stem cell research is a complicated and controversial issue. Before you can be for it or against it, you must fully understand the terminology, the potential, and consequences of stem cell research. There are implicit details which shape the perception of stem cell research. It's been made a:

  • political issue
  • religious issue
  • quality of life issue

In mid-May 2005 President Bush said, "I am a strong supporter of stem cell research, but I've made it very clear to Congress that the use of federal taxpayer money to promote science that destroys life in order to save life, I am against this."

What are stem cells (SC)?

SC differ from other kinds of cells in the body. Regardless of their source, they are capable of dividing and renewing themselves for long periods. Although they are unspecialized, they can give rise to specialized types of cells (i.e. muscle, red blood, brain).

What are embryonic stem cells (ESC)?

ESC are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro, in an in vitro fertilization clinic. They are donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman's body - a common misconception.

What are adult stem cells (ASC)?

ASC are undifferentiated, found among differentiated cell types in a tissue or organ. ASC can renew themselves, and can differentiate to yield the major specialized cell types of the tissue or organ. Their primary role in a living organism is to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found.

How are ESC and ASC similar and how are they different?

They differ in the number and type of differentiated cells they can become. ESC can become all types found in the body. ASC are said to be less versatile, generally limited to differentiating into different cell types of their tissue of origin. However, other evidence suggests that an ASC from one adult tissue may be able to generate the differentiated types of cells of another adult tissue.

Pros

Continuing research on human embryonic stem cells could identify how undifferentiated stem cells become differentiated. It is known that turning genes on and off is central to the process. Some of the most serious medical conditions are caused by abnormal cell division and differentiation.

Better understanding of how these processes are controlled at the genetic and molecular level may lead to:

  • significant information about the cause for many diseases
  • new and better treatment possibilities
  • potential cures for many medical conditions

Simply put, those who support human embryonic stem cell research believe it could lead to possible cures for many diseases, including:

Human stem cells could also be used to test new drugs. According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health, "to screen drugs effectively, the conditions must be identical when comparing different drugs. Therefore, scientists will have to be able to precisely control the differentiation of stem cells into the specific cell type on which drugs will be tested.

Current knowledge of the signals controlling differentiation fall well short of being able to mimic these conditions precisely to consistently have identical differentiated cells for each drug being tested."

The need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, could offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat many diseases.

Cons

One of the main objections to embryonic stem cell research has to do with the belief that using embryos tampers with life. People who stand strong behind this ideology believe that even for the purpose of medical research and the possibility of saving lives, it is wrong. For people who oppose embryonic stem cell research it is a matter of ethics and morals which outweigh the scientific potential.

There is no guarantee that forging ahead with embryonic stem cell research will produce the desired results. That, too, is a problem for some who oppose it. The utilization of embryonic stem cells, is at this point theoretical, unlike adult stem cells which have shown therapeutic results.

Where It Stands

Understanding this issue before formulating an opinion is imperative. Stem cell research is a complicated issue, without doubt. Further investigation regarding the scientific and ethical viewpoints can only result in being more informed and knowledgeable, and the assurance that you are standing on the side of the issue which most strongly aligns with your beliefs.

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