If you have ever heard of stem cells, then you probably already know that in certain circles it can be quite a controversial topic. Unfortunately, this controversy can lead to no small degree of miscommunication, conspiracy theories and outright lies, which this article will attempt to distil, as it seeks to separate what stem cell research is and what is it not.
What Stem Cell Research Is
The body is made up of many types of cells, from skin cells and brain cells, red and white blood cells, liver cells, and so on. All of these cells are what in microbiology are called ‘differentiated’, in that they each perform a specific function inside the body. Stem cells, however, are undifferentiated; they exist in a proto stage of development, before specialization. This means that stem cells can (via the application of gene therapy) be modified into any cell one so chooses. For instance, stem cells could be used to manufacture red blood cells to treat anemia in malaria patients, which could save millions of lives. The application of stem cell treatments range from the neurological, athletic, orthopedic, aesthetic, spinal and many other forms. The utilitarian benefits of stem cell research, therefore, are not what make it controversial. What makes it so is where the best stem cells come from and how they are harvested.
Where Stem Cells Come From
Adult stem cells can come from various parts of the body, but these are usually partially developed, and so their versatility is limited. They are still extremely valuable and make up the majority of stem cell applications, but they are not as valuable or as medically useful as embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are completely undifferentiated and can be used for virtually any microcellular purpose. These are typically created through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Donated sperm and eggs cells are introduced too each other in Petri dishes, which results in a fertilized embryo called a blastocyst. Most healthy blastocysts are implanted into a mother’s uterus in the hopes of inducing a viable pregnancy as par normal IVF treatment, but there are invariably remaining blastocytes from the procedure, which are then cryogenically frozen. The options past this point are that they can be donated to other mothers to be, destroyed or used for research. It is these research blastocysts that are the source of embryonic stem cells.
What Stem Cell Research Isn’t
Unfortunately, there are many untrue claims about embryonic stem cells. Firstly, they are not harvested from aborted fetuses. An abortion is where an embryo that has already been implanted in a mother’s womb, and is currently developing into a child, i.e. an actual pregnancy, is terminated (which can be for all sorts of reasons, and it is not the business of this article to comment on them). Stem cells, however, are taken from blastocysts which have no hope of survival outside of refrigeration. Nor can stem cells be used to advance human cloning projects. Human cloning is illegal by virtually every international medical governing body including the International Society for Stem Cell Research.