What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are the basic building blocks of physiological tissue; they are not yet differentiated into specific types of tissue. Through normal development, they will become every type of tissue in the human body. They can also be transformed in the lab into needed tissues (for example, neurological or cardiovascular tissue).
Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells are taken from a human embryo when the embryonic human is approximately one week old and has grown to 100 cells. These cells are not yet differentiated into specific tissues or organs. They are called pluripotent, meaning that they have the potential to become any type of tissue.
Stem cells in the embryonic stage of human development were first discovered over 20 years ago. Scientists had hoped to use these cells to help rebuild damaged cells to treat spinal cord injuries and cure diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes. However, due to their instability, embryonic stem cells have failed to produce any medical treatment. Besides the technical problem is the moral one: In obtaining embryonic stem cells, the human embryo is necessarily destroyed.
Adult Stem Cells
Adult stem cells are multipotent, meaning that they have the potential to become many types of tissue. Adult stem cells are versatile, although they cannot currently be coaxed into becoming every type of tissue in the body. Scientists believe that adult stem cells roam the body seeking to repair or replace damaged cells. Adult stem cells can be taken from myriad sources: umbilical cord blood of born babies, placentas, skin, bone marrow, tooth dentin, the nasal cavity, and more. When adult stem cells are extracted for medical research, no innocent human life is taken. Adult stem cells have helped diabetic patients discontinue insulin use, cured children with defective immune systems, helped people with multiple sclerosis walk unassisted, and much more.
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells
In 2007, Prof. Shinya Yamanaka at Kyoto University in Japan conducted a type of stem cell research referred to as “dedifferentiation.” This new, more promising research creates embryo-like stem cells without human eggs and without creating and destroying human cloned embryos. He has successfully transformed skin cells into “induced pluripotent stem cells” (IPSCs), which seem to be more versatile than adult stem cells and more stable than embryonic stem cells.
Current Stem Cell Research
In 2001, President George W. Bush established a government policy to federally fund only stem cell lines that were in existence, which meant that no additional embryos would be killed in the future (while his policy was in place) for their stem cells with our tax money. (The practice was not outlawed, however, so private institutions were still free to engage in ESCR.)
In March 2009, President Barack Obama lifted the Bush restrictions on public funding of ESCR. In December 2009, the National Institute of Health (NIH) announced the approval of 13 new lines of embryonic stem cells for $21 million worth of pending new studies using taxpayer dollars. These numbers will only increase, as 96 more batches are undergoing NIH review. The administration considers these cell lines to be “responsibly derived” because they were taken from embryos “left over” from in vitro fertilization procedures.
ESCR Pioneer to Focus on IPSCs
Dr. James Thomson, the doctor who discovered embryonic stem cells, has decided to focus his research on these induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs). The two companies that he co-founded have now merged and will be shifting their focus to “products involving non-embryonic stem cells.”
Clearly, the scientific community cannot ignore the fact that cloning and embryonic stem cells have not produced any results, while IPSCs and adult stem cells have achieved remarkable breakthroughs. Adult stem cells have already been curing patients, while research from the recently discovered IPSCs has already yielded cell lines from people suffering from a host of different diseases, perhaps allowing doctors to use patients’ own cells to treat genetic and other ailments.