Stem cells – should they be used? What is ethically and morally right – you decide.

su Stem cells – should they be used?  What is ethically and morally right – you decide.

Before I dive into the meat of this topic, I just want to give a shout out to Method:  The Best Science Blogs for syndicating this blog.  If you have a chance, check them out – their address is http://science.blogdig.net.  And now, on with the show…

So I was thinking about other topics to write about, and since it is a hotly contested topic (for several years now), I thought I would write on stem cell research.    In this article, I will explore exactly what the different types of stem cells are, how they might be used, and why there is so much controversy.

So, what is a stem cell?  The phrase “stem cell” has become somewhat of a buzz word among the general populace, as well as among doctors and research scientists, but it doesn’t describe very well how many different TYPES of stem cells there are.  I’m going to float around a couple of different “sciency” terms here, but I’ll provide descriptions after them – just skip to those if you’re unfamiliar with the terms.  There are two general categories of stem cells – totipotent and pluripotent.  Some of you will argue this, but I’ll go into subcategories in a moment.  Totipotent stem cells have total potential – they can become any cell in the body, or can become extra-embryonic cells (ok, that was a big one, just think of the placenta, amniotic sac, etc).  Pluripotent stem cells come from the totipotent ones – they can become all cells EXCEPT for the extra-embryonic ones.

One of the problems with stem cell research is that they only take the pluripotent cells, which means that the embryo has begun to form.  I do say begun here – the embryo is in the 8 or 16 cell stage.

A subcategory are called multipotent cells.  These cells can only become certain things – for instance, some cells make all the white and red blood cells in your body, but they cannot regenerate skin.  You have a different type of stem cell for that purpose.

Most multipotent cells are also called somatic stem cells, or adult stem cells, since they only regenerate body tissue and cannot regenerate multiple parts of the body.

One other type of cell has recently surfaced – induced pluripotent stem cells.  These cells have been taken from an adult, and have been chemically induced (made) to take on a pluripotent role.  This type of cell has high hopes in research, as there is much less controversy surrounding them.

So why are we so excited about stem cells?  For starters, they can be used to regenerate any tissue in your body – if your heart is wearing out, they can regenerate you a new one.  Have a spinal cord injury?  Without stem cells, your options for walking again might be limited, but stem cells can regenerate the nerve tissue that might allow you to walk again.

But these cells can go beyond this as well.  Cell based therapies range from injuries to cancer, and everything in between.  Some think that this might be a way to introduce genetic treatments as well, since cells tend to “talk” to others around themselves with chemical messengers.

Finally, the controversy.  Embryonic stem cells are taken from human embryos.  To a large percentage of the population, this is killing the embryo, since it has already been conceived.  It all depends on your point of view – where do you view the creation and beginning of a new life?  Is it at conception?  When they can start thinking?  Birth?  These are the questions that ethical philosophers and research scientist have been trying to answer for years.  Ultimately, stem cell research could be the way to treat a number of different injuries and disease processes, but the ethical and moral dilemma will probably always be a barrier against this type of research.  This is why things like induced pluripotent stem cells are so interesting – they completely bypass the ethical and moral dilemma of working with embryonic stem cells.  So what is the future – embryonic stem cell research, or doing research on adult or “somatic” stem cells to make them able to take on new roles in the body?

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