On October 2008, an event triggered the advancement of a new type of technology that had unlimited potential: stem cells. Edgar Irastorza became the case that spurred the creation of stem cells. When the Miami property manager had a heart attack, his heart accumulated a scar tissue resulting in a loss of a third of its pumping ability. Doctors recommended an unusual medical research trial: getting stem cells injected directly into his heart [1]. The enthusiasm for the use of stem cells continued to grow when Governor Rick Perry of Texas had adult stem cells injected into his spine in 2011 for a back injury [2].

During the past decade, researchers have tested stem cells in lab dishes, and the vague possibility of creating stem cell therapies has become more realistic.

The grandiose acts of re-creating organs in a laboratory that we witness in movies have become a very distinct reality.

So, what are stem cells actually? What do they do? How are they made?

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Image from CHCH

Dieter Egli first worked out how to derive embryonic cells just as he was about to start graduate school [3]. In the two decades that have passed since he has become the front-runner for the prolific cells that have since become a fixture of his career.

Stem cells are a type of cells that all organisms produce. They are nonspecific cells, and as a result, can be used to create organs independent of the human body. For example, the cells in our heart are specialized to carry out a different function than the cells in our hands. Scientists soon found that the unspecialized stem cells could undergo chemical and biological manipulations to become specialized groups of cells. Stem cell research, as the name implies, is the scientific study of these stem cells. Stem cell research allows researchers to grow specific varieties of human cells in the lab and research how they behave and interact under different conditions [4].

At the time, stem cells were slowly becoming the most rapidly advancing technology with high potential for curing diseases that were once thought incurable. However, as with most scientific discoveries with immense potential, there also lies controversy about the morality of the creation of specialized cells.  

The controversy surrounding stem cells lies in the use of embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro [7]. The term “In Vitro” refers to a process performed or taking place in a test tube, culture dish, or elsewhere outside a living organism. Embryonic stem cells can be created in three ways [8]. The most common method for creating embryonic stem cells is outlined below:

Scientists obtain eggs and sperm from donors, which are mixed to fertilize the egg. The fertilized egg, also referred to as the zygote, divides into a multicellular embryo. The zygote is further incubated to create a blastocyst, which is a cluster of 256 cells. The inner cell mass of the blastocyst can be removed and divided under laboratory conditions. Under the right conditions, these cells then become a cell line, and in theory, develop into any tissue.

The process is simple yet somewhat inefficient, as the stem cells may not specialize in the type of specific cell the scientist was aiming to create.

Although embryonic stem cell creation sounds similar to cloning, they have a few major differences that help us distinguish the two. The main difference is that stem cells are cells that can divide and differentiate into the desired cell type, whereas reproductive cloning involves creating an organism that is genetically identical to a donor animal [9]. Although they are two different techniques, cloning and embryonic stem cell research are often combined.

There are also many great benefits that human embryonic stem cells have to offer. Human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research has been linked to potentially revolutionary impacts on human disorders such as Type 1 Diabetes, Mellitus, Parkinson’s disease, and the post-myocardial infarction heart (heart attack).

A particular disease that stem cells have benefited the most has been Type 1 Diabetes. Stem cells used for the treatment of diabetes come from a variety of sources, such as embryos, the placenta, umbilical cord, bone marrow, blood cells and teeth [5]. In 2004, the University of Pittsburgh grew insulin-producing beta cells by introducing two genes through a virus [6]. This method through the use of stem cells has been widely utilized to potentially completely cure individuals of type 1 diabetes.

The ethical controversy about destroying human embryos arose concerning the technique which scientists were utilizing to acquire the required cells. Many people believed that it was unethical to destroy a human embryo, and questions arose concerning when life begins; at fertilization, in the womb, or at birth?

However, in the past five years, scientists have aimed to dispel the controversy by creating stem cells within the patient being treated. The idea is still very new, however, and will require some human embryos for research.  

Regardless, the new stem cell technology has created hope for countless people, offering solutions to diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, that were once unimaginable.

Works Cited

“Chapter 7 – Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research.” Ethical Issues in the Use of Animals in

Biomedical Research, ori.hhs.gov/education/products/ucla/chapter7/page01.htm.

Cyranoski, David. “How Human Embryonic Stem Cells Sparked a Revolution.” Nature News,

Nature Publishing Group, 20 Mar. 2018, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03268-4.

“Diabetes and Stem Cell Research.” Polyuria – Frequent Urination Symptoms and Causes,

www.diabetes.co.uk/Diabetes-And-Stem-Cell-Research.html.

Libretexts. “Cloning and Stem Cells.” Biology LibreTexts, Libretexts, 4 Feb. 2018,

bio.libretexts.org/Core/Molecular_Biology_(Core)/Cloning_and_stem_cells.

Mandal, Ananya. “Stem Cell Controversy.” News-Medical.net, News-Medical.net, 30 Jan. 2013,

www.news-medical.net/life-sciences/Stem-Cell-Controversy.aspx.

“The Stem Cell Debate: Is It Over?” Cloning Myths,

learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/stemcells/scissues/.

Weintraub, Karen. “The Trials of Stem Cell Therapy.” The New York Times, The New York

Times, 15 Sept. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/09/16/science/stem-cell-progress-begins-to-catch-up-to-promise.html.

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