Thursday, March 15, 2012

Stem Cell Research

I believe that stem cell research has a lot of life-saving potential. Stem cells are unspecialized cells capable of renewing themselves through cell division, oftentimes after long periods of inactivity. Furthermore, they may be induced to become tissue- or organ-specific cells with special functions. In some organs, such as the gut and bone marrow, stem cells divide regularly in order to repair and replace worn out or damaged tissues. In other organs, such as the heart and pancreas, stem cells only divide under certain conditions. Until recently, scientists primarily worked with two kinds of stem cells from animals and humans: embryonic stem cells and somatic, or adult, stem cells.

The study of the biology of mouse stem cells in 1988 led to the discovery of a way to derive stem cells from human embryos and grow cells in the laboratory. These cells became known as human embryonic stem cells. The embryos used in these studies were created for reproductive purposes through in vitro fertilization procedures. When they were no longer needed for that purpose, they were donated for research with the informed consent of the donor. Since these cells were used for research with the donors’ informed consent, I do not believe that it was unethical to use those cells in that manner. In 2006, researchers made another breakthrough by finding conditions that would allow specialized adult cells to be “reprogrammed” genetically to assume the status of a stem cell. This new type of stem cell, called an induced pluripotent stem cell, is derived from an adult somatic cell rather than an embryo. These cells can be used for the purpose of treating Shwachman Diamond Syndrome, a rare inherited disorder characterized by pancreatic insufficiency, skeletal abnormalities, and bone marrow dysfunction. Hematopoietic stem cells, or blood-forming cells in the bone marrow, can help treat this autosomal recessive disorder.

Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer potentials for treating diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, laboratory studies of stem cells allow scientists to learn about the cells’ properties and what differentiates them from specialized cells. Stem cells are already used to screen new drugs and develop models to study normal growth and identify the root causes of birth defects. Stem cell research continually advances knowledge about how an organism develops from a single cell and how healthy cells replaced damaged cells in adults. For all these reasons, I support stem cell research and the application of stem cells to treat various diseases.

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