Over the last decade, media coverage of the debate over embryonic stem cell research has been overwhelming. Stem cells have been declared the greatest medical discovery in a century, even though to date only a handful of medical trials have ever been approved to use them for treatment. With such great potential, why have they not become the miracle cure-all they were once declared? Are there any real benefits to embryonic stem cell research?
Stem cells have incredible medical potential. These cells have the potential to become a variety of cells and could prove critical in repairing damaged tissues. Embryonic stem cells (ES cells) are among the most powerful, because they have seen no differentiation and can be programmed to perform the function of any cell. Think about it. Every cell began as a single stem cell that divided and differentiated into the complicated mechanism that is the human body.
Two major treatments have been developed using embryonic stem cells. A group at the Mayo Clinic has shown the potential for rebuilding damaged heart tissue through treatments using ES cells. In the summer of 2009, the first ever clinical trial using ES cells was approved. The trials involve injecting ES cells into damaged spinal cords to try to regrow nerve cells. The treatment shows promise for helping paraplegics regain mobility and limb control.
Besides serving as a direct treatment for various disorders, embryonic stem cells are incredible models for human genetic disorders. Because of their unlimited replicative potential, embryonic stem cells can be studied to provide clues to the replicative nature of cancer. Similarities in gene expression between ES cells and cancer cells may give scientists and medical researchers insight into the mechanism of replication of both cell lines.
Research on embryonic stem cells has also given geneticists tools for determining genetic defects a month and a half before traditional amniocentesis. These prenatal diagnoses have proven effective for discovering genetic abnormalities for prospective parents with a history of genetic abnormalities or for older women having children.
Controversy and debate has prevented ES cells from seeing their full potential. Despite this, the research that has been accomplished has led to the successful development of adult stem cell lines that have proven powerful in various therapeutic procedures. Fueled by a desire to avoid future controversy and to maintain federal funding, various research groups have used embryonic stem cells as a model in order to find alternatives to ES cells in medical research.
Many times it seems that stem cells are all controversy and no science. However, it's clear that a great deal of scientific research has come of work with embryonic stem cells. Regardless of your stance on the controversy, there are some great benefits to embryonic stem cell research.