Stem cell research has been a highly controversial news topic in recent years, but polls suggest that as much as 72% of the public now supports stem cell research. All multi-cellular organisms contain stem cells. These cells have the remarkable ability to divide and produce more stem cells or other specialized cells. Stem cells serve as a limitless internal repair system. Thus, scientists seek to research stem cells and their unique properties’ potential role in patient care.
Embryonic and Adult Stem Cells
There are many different types of stem cells, each classified by location and origin. The two most referenced types are embryonic and adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are developed from embryos four or five days post-in vitro fertilization. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body. At four to five days old, an embryo contains anywhere from 50 to 150 cells. These stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they have the potential to divide and form into any type of cell. Scientists are interested in this specific potential.
Adult stem cells live in various human organs and tissues, such as bone marrow. These stem cells work to repair and regenerate the tissue where they reside. Adult stem cells are scarce and do not reproduce frequently. They have been used in bone marrow transplants and leukemia treatments for over 40 years.
Embryonic stem cell research is the epicenter of the stem cell controversy. Embryos used for research come from eggs fertilized through in vitro fertilization (IVF). In vitro fertilization is a technique that unites the egg and sperm in a laboratory instead of inside the female body. Eggs are never implanted into a female uterus. Embryonic stem cell research involves destroying an embryo in order to harvest another. Because of this, many pro-life* advocates argue against stem cell research.
Scientists are studying embryonic stem cells to identify complex events that take place during human development. Dan S. Kaufman, M.D., Ph.D explains the benefits of embryonic stem cell research: “It is an essential field to pursue to make key advances in biomedical research to treat diseases effectively where there are currently no cures—including, but not limited to, paralysis from spinal cord injury, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and cancer.”
First Stem Cell Clinical Trial
The first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells was conducted in Atlanta, GA in October 2010 to treat a spinal cord injury. During trial treatments on animals, paralyzed rats regained some mobility. Results from this clinical trial have not yet been reported. Although the field of stem cell research is promising, many more years of testing are necessary before researchers know whether stem cell therapy is safe and effective.
*Regarding the use of terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice:” The journalistic and academic consensus is to call each group by its preferred name. Both names are politically framed; some argue the terms need an update.