On a daily basis humans have always wondered where or how life started but who knew the answer was literally in us; the answer is stem cells. Stem cells are the starting point of all living beings; where one cell starts dividing into many corresponding cells. They differentiate themselves into different groups each with unique objectives and functions, and unlike other cells they are unspecialized which means that they have the ability to turn into anything in the human body. Stem cells are a self-renewal system and their behavior is somewhat dependent on their initial location. These cells are the perfect cure for multiple diseases if handled correctly, which is why they trigger scientists interest massively. Despite that, there are controversies on how extracting stem cells may take the life of a human being or injure the process of the formation of the infant which triggers protesters.
Scientists had controversies about cells since 1800s, European researches realized that the body contained many cell types (e.g., white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets) and that cells came from other cells, and in 1908 a Russian Histologist Alexander Maksimov discovered that cells starting point originated from stem cells. In 1956 Edward Donald Thomas was able to successfully inject bone marrow harvested from the patient’s twin sister into the 3 year old with leukemia but was cancer free for 6 months only 2. Twelve years later bone marrow transplantations were successful in treating patients with Leukemia and other diseases without the diseases reappearing again after a certain period of time. From the late 1970s and late 1990s scientists started to experiment in animals and were able to clone a lamb from using stem cells and to find the origin of Leukemia in specific cancer cells. During 1998 scientists discovered stem cells in the human cord and was able to successfully extract it. In 1999 scientists found that they are able to manipulate stem cells into producing other cell types. They started the growth of stem cells in specialized labs during the 2000s and turned adult stem cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (programed cells) 2,3. Scientists are still researching and experimenting on stem cells as they are hard to predict but the results are worth the trouble.
After 100 years of research scientists were able to distinguish between different types of stem cells and recognize which ones are used in therapies or research. Each type of stem cells depends on their initial location. The first type to be discovered was adult stem cells which were found in the bone marrow, blood and fat, and was a staple to cure diseases like Leukemia as it is able to replace damaged cells with new cells. Thomas went on to establish bone marrow transplantation as a common procedure in the treatment of cancer, winning the Nobel Prize in 1990 for his work 2. Adult stem cells are also known as somatic stem cells, they are multi-potent which mean that they can only produce some kind of cells e.g., skin cells and blood cells. The second type is the embryonic stem cells, these cells are harvested from embryos and are only used in research. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent meaning that they can turn into any type of cell in the body. Scientists do not use embryonic stem cells in therapy because their behavior is unpredictable; for example, if we inject ESCs in the heart hoping to regenerate the heart muscles to avoid heart attacks ESCs may turn into liver cells which will cause critical issues in the patient.
The third type is placental (cord blood) stem cells, these cells are harvested from the placenta after the baby is born. They are used for both treatment and research, and storing them can actually be used later on the baby if he/she became ill. Harvesting PSC’s is the best and safest way for the mother and baby, because after the baby is born doctors ask the mother’s permission to store the placenta and cord for medical use 4. The fourth type is mesenchymal stem cells, these cells are multi-potent and extracted from connective tissues in the body. They are used to repair tissues and skeletal injuries.
The fifth type is the induced pluripotent stem cells, this discovery is the most recent one where scientists reprogram any type of cell (e.g., blood cells or skin cells) into becoming stem cells 1. This idea came by to help cure the patients using their own blood to reduce immune rejection. This type is new so scientists are still experimenting with it to help produce the best outcome in the safest way possible. Stem cells help scientists understand how a living being develop, replace damaged cells and react to certain medications. In addition, stem cells that are used in research help scientists see how our body reacts to diseases, predicts the symptoms of those diseases, may develop new organs for transplantation without immune rejection and reduce the number of animal testing.
Several issues have been brought up by critics concerning the extraction and usage of stem cells. In the of extraction aspect critics mentioned that when you pluck those cells out of a developing embryo, you are in fact interfering with the development of a human life 4. Protesters consider this act as unjustified killing of innocent babies. They state that removing the inner cell mass to derive an embryonic stem cell line is tantamount to murder 9. However, scientists have found a couple of ways to extract HESCs safely. The first method of extraction is that with the mother’s permission scientists store the placenta and umbilical cord (medical waste) after the baby is born. The second method of extraction is called autologous transplant and it is done by taking any type of blood in the patient and inducing/reprogramming the blood into stem cells. In addition, protesters stand firm on the idea that embryos have human or “moral rights to a life”. They state that human embryos should be treated with care in order to have that embryo grow into a productive person. Critics say that we should nonetheless treat them as if they have a right to life in order to promote love and concern towards them, as these attitudes have good consequences for the persons they will become 8. On the other hand many argue that an embryo is not a human being stating that an embryo is a group of cells that do not function in a coordinated way to regulate and preserve a single life 8, and so extracting HESCs form a 5 day old embryo is not considered murder.
Considering the HESCs research aspect, among many critics one stated that human life begins in the womb, not a Petri dish or refrigerator 9; it goes back to the factor of unethical acts that must be stopped and prohibited from existing since those experiments result in damaging the embryos. On the other hand scientists find it important to research on HECs since they play the main role to understand how living bodies develop and become who they are. In addition, stem cells play a big role in medicine, they help scientists understand the body’s reaction to certain medication leading to a possible cure. They state that stem cells to model disease processes in the laboratory, and better understand what goes wrong 1. Stem cells research is vital since it allow scientists to work on how human bodies react to diseases and to know their symptoms so that the diseases are dealt with earlier.
Scientists are very cautious about stem cells therapy since it could lead to acute (short terms) and chronic(long term) side effects; and they show days after the transplantation. Some known side effects are infections, anemia, skin and hair problems, graft rejections, etc 12. The occurrence of stem cells side effects transplantations depend on the patient’s age, health, compatibility with donors but the main reason is the amount of chemo and radiation the patient had before the transplant. That is why scientists have encouraged the idea of having more meetings with specialists to discuss the idea of inducing the patients own blood into stem cells to reduce immune rejection (autologous transplant). Scientists and researches both agreed to deal with patients with more care and to prescribe antibiotics, vaccines and growth factors for best results 10. Fortunately, after regular check ups these side effects subside. Stem cells side effects intensity increases if patients took very high doses of chemo and radiation before the stem cells therapy, but now that will not be necessary since scientists are considering using only stem cells therapies as the safer alternative and so these side effects may not appear at all.
Many may disagree about the usage of stem cells but no one can deny that this discovery is a remarkable advance to the medical future and an enhancement of life. Stem cells are used to replace damaged cells and organs, and upgrade the body regeneration system which help cure and understand deadly diseases.These building blocks of life are keys to understand the way and style of formation of these bodies we live in and meet everyday. The opinions of those who reject this issue are understandable as how heartless it may seem to take cells from an embryo that is growing into a living being and to interfere with the growth process. However, protesters should understand that scientists are not inhuman enough to injure the embryo nor do they force people to do it, they are simply trying to help humanity in the most efficient and painless method.