Medical Technology

Stem Cells do we even need them



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Stem Cells in Question

Stem cells, the master cells of the body, have two important characteristics that make them different from other types of cells. First, they are unspecialized cells that renew themselves for long periods through cell division. Secondly, they can be induced to become cells with specialized functions such as, the beating cells of the heart muscle, or the insulin producing cells of the pancreas.

Scientists want to study stem cells in the laboratory so they can learn about their essential properties and what exact factors make them different from specialized cell types. As scientists learn more about stem cells, it may become possible to use them not just in cell-based therapies, but also for screening new drugs, toxins and understanding birth defects.

In order to develop treatments, therapies and screening mediums scientists across the world are intensively studying the fundamental properties of stem cells. These studies include; determining how stem cells remain unspecialized and self-renewing for many years, and identifying the signals that cause stem cells to become specialized cells.

Over two decades ago scientists discovered ways to obtain or derive stem cells from early mouse embryos. In 1998, scientists learned how to isolate human stem cells from three to five day old embryos, called blastocyst. The embryos used in these studies are grown in the laboratory for fertility purposes through in vitro (Latin: within the glass) fertilization; when they were no longer needed for that purpose they were donated for research with the informed consent of the donor.

Two techniques were published in 2005 that offer ways to harvest embryonic stem cells without harming the embryos, which in theory could still develop into babies. However no one, from opponents of embryonic stem cell research, including the Vatican, or advisers to the Bush administration, to scientists and supporters have come to any conclusions on the techniques' moral, political or philosophical ramifications.

In the last six years, researchers have isolated cells in the blood stream called EPC, endolethial progenitor cells; these cells develop in the bone marrow. Through a relatively simple, approximately two hour process these induced cells can be directly injected into the affected tissues of the patient. This method skirts the risk of rejection by the body, and could calm many religious, moral and ethical objections.
Most of the controversies involved in the use of stem cells come from the use of cells that are harvested from the human blastocyst. Many people believe that it is an ethical, or even a religious offense to harm human blastocyst.

It may seem the use of adult stem cells would completely negate ethical and moral questions, but unfortunately it has only served to confuse the issue in many people's minds. Some scientists oppose concentrating research efforts only into the viability of adult stem cells. They fear this would delay, or even halt promising research that involves embryonic stem cells, the most versatile and predictable stem cell. Some also are reluctant to allow those opposed to stem cell research to legislate, or censor science.

The issue of when life actually begins became a popular point of contention in the 1960's when abortion and contraception questions were raised, and the debate continues today. Many people believe that it is wrong to interfere with a potential life for any purpose.

Proponents of the "right to life" position believe that life begins at conception. The Reverend Jerry Falwell posted a statement in the Junto Society Commentator's web page saying, "The president's (George W. Bush) protection of life has been heartening to pro-life Americans who appreciate his attempt to thwart the burgeoning American culture of death."

Others believe that an embryo created in vitro; outside of the womb, is not legally, morally or ethically a "being," and if not implanted into the womb has no potential whatever to become a life. These embryos if not used for fertilization of a patient are disposed of in medical biohazard waste; many supporters of embryonic stem cell research find this to be an appalling misuse and an unspeakable waste.

The "right to life' issues and other ethical questions are immense. When trying to make civil law it is a complicated issue, if not impossible to legislate according to religious belief, as there as many religious beliefs as there are questions of law.
At present United States law prevents federally funded research that endangers or destroys a human embryo; the Food and Drug Administration also strictly limits the research that is allowed to develop the use of adult stem cells.

Research and development, however continues in many modern nations whose societies do not have the ethical issues that the United Sates contends with. Patients in some parts of the world are already benefiting from adult stem cell research. Many heart patients are seeking stem cell therapy in Thailand, where doctors are already performing a stem cell based procedure that they say could save thousands of lives.

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