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STEM Matters: The Stem Cell Scoop
STEM Matters Manager: Marisa Ostos
Stem cell research has been a highly-debated topic of conversation among politicians, scientists, and the everyday citizen. You may have heard about the many contributions stem cell research has made in the health field, such as its success in helping bone marrow transplant patients. On another note, you may also have heard of people’s disapproval of stem cell research due to the way it can be conducted. But rather than listening to others state that stem cell research is “good” or “bad,” let’s delve into the basics of what stem cells are and how stem cell research works.
From the moment of conception, each one of us starts out as a single, fertilized cell known as a zygote. This single-celled zygote contains the basic genetic material (DNA) from both our father and our mother, which ultimately helps us develop into the person we are today. In less than two days, the single zygote cell divides into two cells, which only 15 hours later divides yet again. After just one week, what was once a single cell has now become a blastocyst, a “berry-like” structure the size of a pin that is composed of hundreds of cells! It is the blastocyst that eventually makes its way down to the woman’s uterus where from there, a baby will continue to grow until its birth.
We humans are made of billions upon billions of cells, each serving a specific function for the continued growth and development of our body. One of these types of cells within are body are stem cells, “immature cells that have the potential to become specialized into different types of cells throughout the body” (American Medical Association). Groups of cells together form the different tissues that make up our body, and the reason these stem cells are so special is because they, as immature cells, can either literally become any type of cell in the body (which is what embryonic stem cells do), or can serve to repair specific tissues within our body because of their dividing and specializing capabilities (which is what adult stem cells do).
Of course, scientists do obtain stem cells from different resources, which is where the controversy often comes into play. Of the two types of stem cells (adult vs embryonic), adult stem cells can easily be removed from our own tissue with very little, if any effect on us (*Note: the sample size of the tissue can be quite small). Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are “derived from multicellular embryos that have been cultured in the laboratory.” No, a researcher does not take cells from an embryo that is already growing inside of a mother. Rather, these stem cells may come from a variety of sources: Spare embryos created via in vitro fertilization that were not needed for infertility treatment; Adult tissue such as bone marrow; An empty egg cell into which DNA from an adult cell is placed; Mature adult cells that were pre-programmed to behave like stem cells (cool, huh?); Blood cells from an umbilical cord; etc. Yes, there are a variety of places that these stem cells come from, but do know, too, that any scientist who does research follows guidelines to do their research in the most ethical, humane, and respectful manner possible.
Now that you know where stem cells come from and that they can become or help repair almost any type of cell in the body (such as cell that replaces disfunctional bone marrow or a cell that helps repair the lining of the heart), what are they used for? Well, the possibilities for their use are endless! Right now, stem cells “provide life-saving treatments for patients with leukemia, lymphoma, other blood disorders, and some solid tumors.” They help in bone marrow transplants…. With their potential to become any type of cell in the body, it is also possible that these cells can ultimately help to prevent or cure diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, hearing loss, arthritis, and so much more. Maybe one day these single cells can be used to replace a leg someone may have lost years ago, or even more, maybe they can be used to create a brand new human heart! Scientists are already doing the research to solve these problems using stem cells!
So yes, while various sources of stem cells can be debatable, it is important to remember again that scientists who do stem cell research do so in the most ethical and human way possible, and even more, they are uncovering each day more and more information that may eventually help prevent or cure hundreds upon hundreds of the world’s problems today, all because of a single cell. What a wonder science is!
*Source: “Basics of Stem Cell Research,” American Medical Association.