|Other encyclopedia topics:||A-Ag Ah-Ap Aq-Az B-Bk Bl-Bz C-Cg Ch-Co Cp-Cz D-Di Dj-Dz E-Ep Eq-Ez F G H-Hf Hg-Hz I-In Io-Iz J K L-Ln Lo-Lz M-Mf Mg-Mz N O P-Pl Pm-Pz Q R S-Sh Si-Sp Sq-Sz T-Tn To-Tz U V W X Y Z 0-9|
|Contents of this page:|
Definition Return to top
A stem cell is a "generic" cell that can make exact copies of itself indefinitely. In addition, a stem cell has the ability to produce specialized cells for various tissues in the body -- such as heart muscle, brain tissue, and liver tissue. Scientists are able to maintain stem cells forever, developing them into specialized cells as needed.
There are two basic types:
Information Return to top
Potential uses for stem cells
There are many areas in medicine where stem cell research could have a significant impact. For example, there are a variety of diseases and injuries in which a patient's cells or tissues are destroyed and must be replaced by tissue or organ transplants. Stem cells may be able to generate brand new tissue in these cases, and even cure diseases for which currently there is no adequate therapy. Diseases that could see revolutionary advances include Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, diabetes, spinal cord injury, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, cancer, and burns.
Stem cells could also be used to gain a better understanding of how genetics work in the early stages of cell development. This can help scientists understand why some cells develop abnormally and lead to medical problems such as birth defects and cancer. By understanding the genetic basis for cell development, scientists may learn how to prevent some of these diseases.
Finally, stem cells may be useful in the testing and development of drugs. Because stem cells can be used to create unlimited amounts of specialized tissue, such as heart tissue, it may be possible to test how drugs react on these specialized tissues before trying the drugs on animals and human subjects. Drugs could be tested for effectiveness and side effects more rapidly.
Controversy about stem cell research
In August 2001, President George W. Bush approved limited federal funding for stem cell research. While stem cell research has the potential to provide major medical advances, including cures for many diseases, stem cell research is controversial.
The stem cell controversy is based on the belief by opponents that a fertilized egg is fundamentally a human being with rights and interests that need to be protected. Those who oppose stem cell research do not want fetuses and fertilized eggs used for research purposes. However, a team of scientists have developed a technique that was successful in generating mouse stem cells without destroying the mouse embryo. This technique has not yet been attempted on human embryonic tissue. Many other scientists are attempting to create more universally accepted forms of human embryonic stem cells, as well as other types of adult stem cells.
Supporters of stem cell research argue that the fertilized eggs are donated with consent from each couple and would be discarded anyway. Therefore, there is no potential for those fertilized eggs to become human beings. Fertilized eggs are not (at this time) being created specifically for stem cell research.
As with any moral and ethical issue, the controversy surrounding stem cell research will likely continue for quite some time.
In the United States, supporters believe that an aggressive federal program is needed before the potential of stem cell research can be realized. At this time, federal funding is limited to stem cell lines that already exist. The funding does not support creating new stem cell lines from existing fertilized eggs. This is based on the idea that a decision on the existing stem cell lines has already been made, prior to the policy’s implementation, by the egg donors themselves. The current U.S. policy is an attempt at a compromise -- one that supports medical research, and at the same time eases the ethical concerns of those opposing embryonic stem cell research.
References Return to top
Okie S. Stem-cell research--signposts and roadblocks. N Engl J Med.2005 Jul 7;353(1):1-5.
Lindvall O, Kokaia Z. Stem cell therapy for human brain disorders. Kidney Int. 2005 Nov;68(5):1937-9.
Fukuda H, Takahashi J. Embryonic stem cells as a cell source for treating Parkinson's disease. Expert Opin Biol Ther. 2005 Oct;5(10):1273-80.
Green R. Can we develop ethically universal embryonic stem-cell lines? Nature Genet Rev. June 2007;8:480-485.
Lougheed T. New US guidelines for research on human embryos. CMAJ.2005 Jun 21;172(13):1672.
Zwillich T. Guidelines set ethical bar for US stem cell research. Lancet. 2005 May 7-13;365(9471):1612.Update Date: 7/25/2007 Updated by: Chad Haldeman-Englert, MD, Division of Human Genetics, Children's Hospitalof Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed HealthcareNetwork.