Thesis: Stem Cell Research and Testing

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Stem Cell Research and Testing

Stem Cell Research

The field of Stem cell research has come out of its first phase of research to the current phase where researchers are trying to harness its efficacy in the areas of regenerative medicine that could alter our entire approach to the management of degenerative diseases. Stem cells from umbilical cord blood are found to be very effective in the treatment of hematological, neurological and immunological disorders. There is no question of doubt that research in stem cells holds great potential for the effective treatment and management of a range of degenerative disorders.

Much progress has been achieved in the field of medicine with advanced diagnostic methods, preventive and curative interventions, and an overall improvement in human disease management, yet with all the expertise, degenerative diseases such as immune disorders, neural complications, cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, etc., continue to be a major cause of concern, affecting the quality of life in a big way. Stem cell research is currently one of the most fascinating areas of medicine with great promise for curing a variety of diseases. This growing field of regenerative medicine has totally altered our perception of diseases and their treatment. Few years ago, the U.S. congress contributed a $10 million funding for establishing a national cord blood stem cell bank. [Emily Ann Meyer, 2005, 4] the capability of stem cells to differentiate into specific cell types based on their environment has created a whole new approach to disease management. Medical research is currently focused on utilizing this reparative property of stem cells as a potent treatment solution for a variety of diseases such as leukemia, cancers, spinal cord injuries, blood and immune disorders, etc. However, actualizing this new technology is not an easy task and there still remain considerable hurdles to be overcome. Asides the difficulties pertaining to the perfection of the technology, there are also strong concerns about the moral and ethical aspects, particularly of those research involving embryonic stem cells. Let us have a brief overview of the field of stem cell research and its medical utility.

Stem Cells Different Types

Stem cells are the most basic cells of living beings and they have the special property of replication as well as differentiation. Stem cells are divided into four main categories based on their potential to differentiate. They are the Totipotent, Pluripotent, Multipotent and Unipotent stem cells. Totipotent stem cells refer to the initial few cells that are formed after the fusion of the egg and the sperm. They can differentiate into embryonic and extra embryonic cell types. (all cell types of the organism) Pluripotent stem cells, as the name suggests, are capable of developing into most types of tissues and are derived from the totipotent cells. Multipotent stem cells are more committed in their biological function and capable of producing cells that are closely related. The hematopoietic stem cells are a good example of the multipotent type and they produce red blood cells, platelets and white blood corpuscles. Finally, the unipotent cells are those cells that are capable of differentiating into only one specific cell type. (ex skin cells) [Holland, Suzanne, 2001] Now let us discuss the different sources of stem cells and their applications.

Sources of Stem cells

Stem cells, the precursor cells of all other cell types, can be derived from a variety of sources. Embryonic stem cells, embryonic germ cells, adult stem cells and stem cells derived from the umbilical cord matrix, are the major sources of stem cells. As discussed above, the differentiating ability of the stem cells is related to its stage of development. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent and retain the greatest potential to develop into any tissue type as they are derived from the embryo. They are obtained from the blastocyst (initial stage of the embryo) and the first culture of embryonic stem cells was done only in 1998. Thus, embryonic stem cell research is still in its early stages. Embryonic germ cells on the other hand are obtained from fetuses that are aborted within the first 8 weeks. [Holland, 2001] Since they are derived from early stage human embryos, there are strong ethical concerns pertaining to the field of embryonic stem cells research.

Adult stem cells are derived from mature and differentiated tissues. Stem cells from the bone marrow, skin, etc., are some examples of adult stem cells. Unlike embryonic stem cells, adult stem cell research has been in prominence over the last four decades and as early as 1968 the first bone marrow transplant was performed successfully. The main drawback with adult stem cells is that they are limited in their potential and that in vitro culturing is a very difficult task. The proliferation rate of adult stem cells is very low compared to embryonic stem cells. [LE Magazine]

Stem cells from the umbilical cord, however, were first successfully used in 1988 in the treatment of anemia. Since then stem cells from cord blood have been transplanted successfully in more than 6000 cases. [Emily Ann Meyer, 2005, 35] Because umbilical cords are discarded anyway, stem cells derived from them do not contribute to any ethical or moral issues. "Umbilical cords are a rich, non-controversial source of stem cells, but currently hospitals throw millions of them away each year because we do not have the infrastructure needed to properly collect and store them," "The best kept medical secret has been that thousands have been successfully treated with cord blood stem cells for more than 67 diseases including Leukemia and Sickle Cell Anemia." [Chris Smith] Today there are cord blood banks all over the world which store the stem cells obtained from the umbilical cord during childbirth as a biological insurance.

Ethical Controversies

Among the different sources of stem cells discussed above, research involving adult stem cells is free of any controversy. With the consent of a willing adult, stem cells thus derived and used for research and treatment procedures is without any ethical disagreement. However, much heated debate exists in the use of embryos as a source of stem cells for research. As we discussed above, working with embryonic stem cells, as well as embryonic germ cells, involves the use of human embryos and aborted fetuses. [Holland, 2001] in the case of embryonic germ cells, the ethical controversy arises naturally from the existing controversy concerning abortion itself. For those people who are against abortion, it then becomes a difficult proposition to convince the medical utility value of working with fetal tissues.[ Chapman et.al] Thus, in the case of EG cell research, the first ethically debatable measure is already undertaken with the completion of the abortion process. There are documented cases where non-profit tissue banks have sold cadavers donated to them for research purposes for huge sums of money. As Holland puts it "Skins, tendons, heart valves, veins, and corneas are listed at about $110,000. Add bone from the same body, and one cadaver can be worth about $220,000." [Holland, 2001, 266] So there is always the possibility that abortion clinics might try to profit from the market for embryonic germ cell research supplying fetuses to the research centers with or without the knowledge of the concerned pregnant woman.

During his tenure, president Mr. Bush vetoed the embryonic stem cell research bill owing to the ethical and moral consequences involved. Quoting Mr. Bush, "If this bill were to become law, American taxpayers would, for the first time in our history, be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos, and I'm not going to allow it." [CNN] However, the medical community was very upset with the veto, which blocks federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. For those suffering from degenerative diseases like diabetes and other immune disorders, embryonic stem cell research could prove to be potentially life saving. As the chairperson of the American diabetes association says, "a devastating setback for the 20.8 million American children and adults with diabetes -- and those who love and care for them." [CNN] in Canada also, federal funds for EG cell research is controlled by regulations that require that the research does not affect the decision of the pregnant woman and that such research could only be carried out upon personal consent of the pregnant woman. [CIHR]

Addressing the ethical issues involved in embryonic stem cell research, the bioethics committee of the U.S. government had proposed 4 alternative methods of obtaining stem cells for research that are free of such controversies. These include 1) extracting cells from dead embryos 2) Extracting cells from embryos without affecting them ('non harmful biopsy') 3) by obtaining cells from artificially created embryo like cell system which however lacks the potential for embryogenesis but still has limited cellular division. 4) 'dedifferentiation of Somatic cells' to restore their pluripotency. [Council on Bioethics] While these alternative approaches were being pursued vigorously over the last few years, recent policy changes on embryonic research has opened new vistas for stem cell research. With the recent change in policy by president Obama lifting… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Stem Cell Research and Testing.  (2009, September 1).  Retrieved June 20, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/stem-cell-research-testing/1455727

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"Stem Cell Research and Testing."  Essaytown.com.  September 1, 2009.  Accessed June 20, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/stem-cell-research-testing/1455727.