Stem cell research has been the subject of discussion and heated debate for many years. Much of the social and political drama surrounding stem cells is the result of misunderstanding what stem cells are, where they come from, and what they can do for those with injuries and diseases.
Working from a common set of facts is a great way to dispel controversy, however. Whether we fall into the “pro-choice” or “pro-life” camp, it is more than evident that supporting stem cell research, including the development of stem cell therapies, is very much a “pro-life” position to take.
Why Are Stem Cells the Focus of So Much Research?
Stem cells function essentially like raw materials for the body. Depending on instructions from the body (or researchers in laboratories), stem cells can become many other types of cells with specialized functions.
The “daughters” of stem cells either become new stem cells (“self-renewal”) or they become more specialized cells for use in specific areas of the body (“differentiation”). These specialized cells include brain cells, heart muscle cells, bone cells, blood cells and others.
There are several reasons why stem cells are the focus of some of the most important medical science research today:
- Studying stem cells as they differentiate into nerves, bone cells and organ and tissue cells helps the medical community better understand how illnesses develop and spread within the human body.
- Researchers and doctors can use stem cells to find out how different drugs react with the body’s cells and systems. For instance, growing nerve cells in a controlled setting helps determine the effectiveness and any side-effects of new nerve disease treatments.
- Stem cells have the potential to regenerate parts of the body, and restore functionality, that would be lost to the patient otherwise. Individuals with Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and cancer may soon benefit from stem cell regeneration therapies.
This last avenue of medical research — stem cell therapies — is the most consequential as well as the most controversial, depending on your point of view. Understanding stem cell therapy and its divisiveness requires understanding where stem cells come from in medical research and why they have considerable palliative potential.
Where Stem Cells Come from and How They Contribute to Medical Research
Stem cells come from one of these three sources:
1. Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells are the most controversial as well as the most important type of stem cells right now. Thanks to a low-information electorate and gross misinformation from within the government, embryonic stem cells remain mired in needless debate.
Despite the rhetoric, these cells aren’t “harvested” from “slain” newborns. Instead, they are carefully gathered from blastocysts. Blastocysts are three-to-five-day-old embryos comprised of around 150 cells. According to some religious-political arguments, blastocysts are “potential human beings,” and therefore deserve legal protection.
Embryonic stem cells are the most valuable in medical research because they are fully “pluripotent,” which means they are versatile enough to become any type of cell the body requires to heal or repair itself.
2. Adult Stem Cells
Adults have limited numbers of stem cells in a variety of bodily tissues, including fat and bone marrow. Unlike pluripotent embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells have more limits on the types of cells they can become.
However, medical researchers keep uncovering evidence that adult stem cells may be more pliable than they originally believed. There is reason to believe cells from adult bone marrow may eventually help patients overcome heart disease and neurological problems. However, adult stem cells are more likely than embryonic stem cells to show abnormalities and environment-induced damage, including cell replication errors and toxins.
3. Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells
The newest efforts in stem cell research involve using genetic manipulation to turn adult stem cells into more versatile embryonic variants. This could help side-step the thorny abortion controversy, but it’s also not clear at present whether these altered stem cells may bring unforeseen side-effects when used in humans.
4. Perinatal Stem Cells
More research is required to fully understand the medical potential of perinatal stem cells. However, some scientists believe they may in time become a viable replacement for other types of stem cells. Perinatal stem cells come from amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood.
Using a standard amniocentesis, doctors can extract umbilical cord mesenchymal stem cells, hematopoietic stem cells, amniotic membrane and fluid stem cells, amniotic epithelial cells and others.
Stem Cell Therapy and Its Applications
Stem cell therapy is a broad area of medical research. Also called “regenerative medicine,” it seeks to uncover new ways to use stem cells to repair damaged, dysfunctional or diseased organs and tissues.
Among other things, stem cell therapy is the next step forward for organ transplants. Instead of waiting on a transplant waiting list, patients may soon be able to have new organs grown from their very own stem cells.
Bone marrow transplants are one of the best-known examples of stem cell therapy. This is where doctors take bone marrow cells and induce them to become heart muscle cells.
Stem cell-based therapies hold significant promise across a wide range of medical conditions and diseases. With the right approach, stem cells show the potential to:
- Replace neurons that don’t otherwise self-replicate, including as a result of spinal cord injuries. This has implications in treating Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological diseases.
- Produce insulin when the body can’t produce it on its own. This could help treat those with arthritis, diabetes and cartilage damage.
- Treat diseases of the blood, including sickle cell anemia and leukemia. Allogenic stem cell transplants are a viable treatment for children and elderly adults whose leukemia is at a high risk of returning after achieving chemo-induced remission.
- Help treat myelofibrosis, which involves scarring of the body’s bone marrow.
- Help patients recover from severe burns and associated high levels of pain from skin and tissue damage.
- Help the stem cell recipient’s immune system become capable of fighting off some types of cancer on its own.
- Some “groundbreaking” stem cell-based treatments may even help the paralyzed walk again.
As the FDA notes, there is a lot of “hype” surrounding stem cell therapy. Much of it is warranted, but some of it deserves caution.
According to the FDA, stem cells have the “potential to treat diseases or conditions for which few treatments exist.” The FDA has a thorough investigational process for new stem cell-based treatments. This includes Investigational New Drug Applications (IND) and conducting animal testing.
However, the FDA notes that not every medical entity submits an IND when they bring a new stem cell therapy to market. It is vital that patients seek out only FDA-reviewed stem cell therapies and learn all they can about the potential risks, which include reactions at the administration site and even the growth of tumors.
The FDA submitted a paper, “Clarifying Stem-Cell Therapy’s Benefits and Risks,” to the New England Journal of Medicine in 2017. Its goal is to help patients fully understand what they’re getting themselves into.
Dispelling the Controversy Over Stem Cells
For now, a great deal more research is required before we begin deploying stem cell therapies on a larger scale. The only FDA-approved stem cell therapies on the market today involve treating cancer in bone marrow and blood. Some clinics claim their therapy delivers miracle-like cures for everything from sports injuries to muscular dystrophy, but there just isn’t enough evidence yet to take them at face value.
Unfortunately, the religious and political climate makes this evidence difficult to achieve. In some parts of the United States, the hostility toward stem cell researchers and medical practitioners has reached dangerous new levels.
Republicans in Ohio and Georgia want to make it illegal for doctors to perform routine procedures on “ectopic pregnancies.” This condition is life-threatening for the mother and involves the removal of a nonviable embryo from the fallopian tube.
These laws wouldn’t just outlaw ectopic pregnancy surgery in the name of “potential human life.” It would, in fact, require women to undergo a reimplantation procedure after the ectopic pregnancy is corrected by a physician. If this procedure was actually medically possible, it would be dangerous and unnecessary. Thankfully, it doesn’t exist outside the nightmarish imaginations of some of the more extreme Christian lawmakers and Planned Parenthood demonstrators.
Acquiring embryonic stem cells from ectopic pregnancies would seem to be the least controversial way to go about it. Unfortunately, even that small step toward medical progress sees itself hampered by reactionary politics.
No matter how they’re acquired, however, the 150 or so cells in blastocysts are packed with medical potential. It’s clear that further exploration down this road will unlock unprecedented scientific progress. It will also, almost certainly, save many times more “potential life” than even the most outlandish estimates of what the achievement will cost us to achieve. Abortions today are rarer and safer than ever, and the vast majority occur within eight weeks of conception.
The medical community is poised for a revolution here, using these and other nonviable embryos and blastocysts. But realizing that potential requires, among other things, that we collectively make peace with modern medicine and family planning.