By understanding the power of stem cells, the options available, and the reasons why some people are hesitant while others urge research forward, you can decide for yourself whether they are the appropriate treatment option for you.
What Are Stem Cells, and How Do They Help?
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells with the potential to become and create specialized cells. They function as a repair system for the body, contributing to the process of tissue regeneration while also supporting normal growth and development.
Stem cells have two crucial and unique abilities: pluripotency and self-renewal. Pluripotency is the ability to become any kind of cell needed, and self-renewal refers to the way they can replicate themselves indefinitely, providing a never-ending supply of undifferentiated cells.
Different Types of Stem Cells
There are three broad categories of stem cells: embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem cells. Each option has diverse applications and unique characteristics.
Embryonic cells come from blastocyst-stage embryos, which are embryos that are from three to five days old. They usually derive from in vitro fertilization clinics. At this stage, the embryo contains an inner cell mass capable of creating all of the tissues that make up the human body. Embryonic cells are fertilized in a lab and donated with full consent. But due to ethical controversy, it is widely used in research only.
Adult stem cells are found in various tissues and organs throughout the adult human body. These stem cells are multipotent, so they can transform into a limited number of stem cells. Adult stem cells help maintain tissue homeostasis and repair and replace damaged cells.
Adult stem cells include:
- Mesenchymal stem cells
- Blood stem cells
- Skin stem cells
- Neural stem cells
- Epithelial stem cells
Induced pluripotent stem cells are made by reprogramming certain adult stem cells into a pluripotent state with the use of genetic factors. These cells are similar to embryonic stem cells in the way they function.
Stem Cell Research: Why There’s Controversy
Using stem cells and performing stem cell research still poses challenges in ethics for some people, especially when turning to embryonic stem cells.
Concerns over when personhood begins make the use of embryonic stem cells more complex because there’s a worry about the moral status of embryos and whether they can be used or discarded.
It’s crucial to understand that the embryos that are used have never been in a woman’s body. They are embryos that fertility clinics would otherwise discard. Although the discarding of the embryos is not usually a controversy, the use of those same embryos for research creates controversy for some.
In this regard, induced pluripotent stem cells are more readily accepted because they don’t rely on embryos. Other issues can arise, however, when it comes to the actual process of researching stem cells. This includes oversight concerns as well as consent issues.
Arguments for Stem Cell Research
Because of the benefits that stem cell therapy offers, many scientists encourage research to improve treatments and learn more about how human bodies function.
Stem cell research contributes to the understanding of cellular processes. This allows for the development of better treatment options, as well as a better comprehension of how some conditions form. Stem cells hold promise for the treatment of degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease, COPD, and Alzheimer’s.
Additionally, stem cell research offers the chance for scientists to understand how stem cells replace or repair damaged cells. This information would make it easier to provide targeted treatments that are more efficient and longer lasting.
Using stem cells to create new therapies and medical technologies opens the door to the creation of new jobs and specializations. These advanced treatments can also help decrease medical costs, helping the economy in the long run.
Ethical Use of Discarded Embryos
Embryos that have been made via in vitro fertilization processes and have gone unused can serve a purpose instead of being discarded. Many argue that this is a better option than treating the embryos like medical waste.
Arguments Against Stem Cell Research
Those against stem cell research generally cite safety and ethical concerns centering on consent and exploitation problems.
Safety and Efficacy
Because stem cell therapies are still relatively new, there are worries about how effective they can be. The issue with this argument against stem cell research is that it fights against the very thing that would provide a definite answer as to whether stem cells are effective and safe: ongoing research.
The ethical concerns mainly focus on the use of embryonic stem cells, including the worry about obtaining consent. In many instances, detractors suggest turning to induced pluripotent stem cells for research and avoiding embryonic cell use because of the ethical barriers that would slow the research down.
In other instances, the worry of consent focuses on the risk of the potential exploitation of vulnerable populations. Those against the research note concern about the possibility of future coercion and other similar activities.
However, as with any other form of research, the scientific community imposes strict guidelines designed to protect against these concerns.
Focusing on the Potential of Regenerative Medicine
Living with chronic conditions that affect quality of life usually means relying on medications, invasive procedures, and therapies that might manage some symptoms but don’t get to the root of the problem.
On the other hand, stem cell research offers the potential to not only understand the causes of some of the most debilitating conditions and injuries, but also to provide therapy solutions to help manage symptoms.
The path to learning more about conditions like COPD or Parkinson’s is not easy, but embracing new and promising treatment options can open a way forward. By tackling some of the ethical concerns people have about stem cells head-on, lives may be able to improve for many people around the world.