Stem cells’ role in medicine and research – The Medium

By daniellenierenberg

What are stem cells and what role can they play in medicine andresearch? Stem cell research offers exciting possibilities in terms ofregenerative medicine. However, there are ethical controversies and challengesimpeding the fields advancement. In this article, The Medium presents a briefoverview of the unique abilities, applications, and challenges of stem cells.

According tothe National Institute of Health, stem cells are able to develop into manydifferent cell types in the body during early life and growth. When stem cellsdivide, the new cell can become another stem cell or it can become aspecialized cell such as a muscle cell or a brain cell. Stem cells provide newcells for the body as it grows and replaces damaged or lost specialized cells.The two unique properties of stem cells are that the stem cells can dividemultiple times to produce new cells, and as they divide, the stem cells cangenerate other types of cells found in the body.

In organs suchas the gut and the bone marrow (the soft tissue inside most bones), stem cellsroutinely divide to replace damaged tissue. However, in other organs such asthe heart, stem cells require certain physiological conditions to facilitate celldivision.

Stem cells canbe divided into two categories: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.Embryonic stem cells are derived from a blastocystan early stage of embryodevelopment. The blastocyst contains the trophectoderm, which will eventuallyform the placenta, and the inner cell mass, which will develop into the embryo,and later into the organism. Stem cells taken from the inner cell mass arepluripotentthey can develop into any cell type in the body. The embryonic stemcells used in research are sourced from unused embryos that were a result of anin vitro fertilization procedure and were donated for scientific research.

Adult stemcells also have the ability to divide into more than one cell type; however,they are often restricted to certain types of cells. For example, an adult stemcell found in the liver will only divide into more liver cells. In 2006, ShinyaYamanaka, a Japanese stem cell researcher, discovered how to program inducedpluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). iPSCs are adult cells which have beengenetically reprogrammed into a pluripotent embryonic stem cell-like state.Yamanaka won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine alongside Englishdevelopmental biologist Sir John Gurdon in 2012 for this important discovery.

There arenumerous ways in which stem cells can be used. Firstly, human embryonic stemcells can provide information as to how cells divide into tissues and organs.Abnormal cell division can cause cancer and birth defects, and therefore, amore comprehensive understanding of the processes underlying cell division maysuggest new therapy strategies. Another beneficial avenue involves drug testingas new medications could be tested on cells developed from stem cells in thelab. However, a challenge for researchers is to create an environment identicalto the conditions found in the human body.

Finally, stemcells present exciting possibilities in cell-based therapies and regenerativemedicine. Instead of relying on a limited supply of donated organs and tissuesto replace damaged and destroyed ones, stem cells could be directed to developinto the desired cell type and treat diseases such as heart disease, diabetes,and spinal cord injuries. For example, healthy heart muscle cells could begenerated from stem cells in a laboratory and transplanted into an individualwith heart disease. However, there is still research and testing which needs tobe conducted before researchers can confirm how to effectively and safely usestem cells to treat serious disease.

As explainedby the University of Rochesters medical centre, there are several challengesassociated with stem cells. Researchers first need to learn about how embryonicstem cells develop so that they can control the type of cells generated fromstem cells. Scientists also need to determine how to ensure that the cellsdeveloped from stem cells in the lab are not rejected by the human body. Adultpluripotent stem cells are found in small amounts in the human body and arehard to grow in the lab. There are also numerous ethical issues surrounding theuse of embryonic stem cells as some individuals believe that using cells froman unused blastocyst and consequently, rendering it incapable to develop intoan organism, is similar to destroying an unborn child. Others argue that theblastocyst is not a child yet as it needs to be imbedded into the mothersuterus wall before it has the chance to develop into a fetus. Supporters ofembryonic stem cell research also say that many surplus blastocysts aredestroyed in fertility clinics and can be better used to research medicaltreatments which could save peoples lives.

Students canlearn more about stem cells in BIO380H5: Human Development. Furthermore, Dr.Ted Erlicks lab at UTM is researching how complex neural circuits developfrom an initial population of stem cells. Stem cell research offers promisingavenues of treating diseases and understanding how humans develop. However,there is still a substantial amount of research which needs to be conducted andethical concerns which need to be appropriately addressed and resolved.

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Stem cells' role in medicine and research - The Medium

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