The history of stem cells being used in the medical field may seem like it’s a pretty new thing, what with all the controversy over it dominating the headlines throughout the 21st century, as well as a timely 2001 episode of South Park addressing the issue in its usual blunt, but humorous way. But despite appearing to come out of nowhere at the turn of the century, stem cell science has a history dating back to February of 1961, when Canadian researchers at the Ontario Cancer Institute published a study that proved the existence of stem cells, as well as positing various potential uses and benefits for these cells.
Stem cells have had a turbulent history, as well as a complex, and often-changing relationship with the public, especially politics, with everyone from the president to the pope putting in their two cents about the ethical implications. While the political and ethical aspects of stem cell research could merit an entire article of their own, it’s the benefits of this research that we’ll be discussing today, and it’s these (sometimes overwhelmingly) positive results that the stem cell proponents have been standing up against the ethics argument for years, usually to great effect. As you probably know already, the field of stem cell research requires a great knowledge of biology, and if you’re currently a bio student looking to take the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) Exam, then this course on GCSE biology, and this article on GCSE test questions may be good tools to help you pass this tough test.
A Brief Explanation of Stem Cells
Before we get into the benefits of stem cell research, first, we’ll very briefly explain what stem cells are. Basically, stem cells are blank cells that are to be later developed into other, more specialized cells that will be the building blocks of our bodies, such as a liver cell, a brain cell, or a red blood cell. The Canadian scientists mentioned earlier discovered that these blank cells can be extracted and programed to be healthy new cells to replace damaged older cells, such as those damaged by sickness, disease, or even injury.
One of the two types of stem cells, embryonic stem cells, which are extracted from aborted fetuses, are the best types of stem cells to use, which is where the controversy enters. Luckily, there was a discovery that adult, or non-embryonic, stem cells are also viable, with even some of these adult cells able to be reprogrammed (induced pluripotent stem cells) to later become other types of cells. However, no matter what good this research will end up doing, because of its connection to the hot-button topic of abortion, stem cell research will always be a very touchy issue.
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The Benefits of Stem Cell Research
Regardless of your personal feelings on abortion or other ethical issues tied up with stem cell research, it does help people with serious illnesses and injuries to not only survive, but to also return to a normal way of life. While the issue of stem cells and the ethical repercussions that lie therein are incredibly complex, with all sides having legitimate arguments, we’re here to simply discuss the benefits of the research while attempting to keep any discussion of right or wrong out of it. Sometimes people think sticky issues such as this one are best left alone, but others are more analytical, and this article on analytic philosophy will show you how to pick apart arguments and critically think about things.
- Cell-Based Therapies: For diseases that require a transplant of healthy tissues and organs to replace diseased or malfunctioning ones, stem cells can be utilized to replace these problematic parts. Right now, many of the people dealing with organ failure must wait on a list for an available and healthy kidney, liver, or other organ to be donated. Many times this wait is too long for the person to be able to withstand, and they may die while waiting on this list. Other maladies that stem cell research may prove beneficial in eradicating are Parkinson’s disease, type I diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular diseases, spinal cord injuries, schizophrenia, and even cancer.
- No More Transplantation: Connected to the previous benefit of preventing the need for patients having to wait on a donor list for a new organ or tissues to arrive, stem cells can also be used to grow a clone of the patent’s own organ or tissue outside of the body, and this is used more often with the adult, non-embryonic, stem cells. When the organ is matured, the patient will then get a healthy copy of their own heart, liver, etc., and because it’s made from their own cells, there’s a much smaller chance of the new organ being rejected by the body. This technology can also be applied to limbs or other parts of the body that may be severed due to an accident or through necessity, where a new arm or ear can be grown separate from the patient, then implanted once fully matured.
- Disease Reversal: For some suffering from genetic defects that have existed since birth, as well as those who have incurred heart damage due to a heart attack or other trauma, stem cells may help reverse any damage incurred. By directing stem cells into problem areas, they can transform into healthy versions of the damaged cells they are replacing. If all this talk about disease and sickness is worrying you, then this course on perfect health will show you how to live a long, healthy, disease free life.
- Burn Victims: Stem cells can be utilized to help repair damaged skin tissue that burn victims would otherwise need to wait for people to donate to them. The process involves scientists removing certain stem cells from the victim’s tissue, then triggering them to grow, or differentiate, outside the body, then transplanting them back onto the body to replace the damaged tissue. A small piece of healthy skin can be grown into a larger piece, then used to replace more skin than was taken.
- Developmental Studies: Embryonic stem cells can be used to study the development stages of a human embryo. This will allow scientists to better understand the consequences, causes, and treatments of various birth defects, as well as causes of pregnancy loss, and infertility. The psychology and science behind how we grow as people is very interesting, and this course on human development will explain some of the stages of our development, as well as offer some helpful parenting practices.
- Testing Drugs: Before testing a drug on humans or animals, the pharmaceutical industry would be able to test new products on stem cells, without any negative affects. How that would work is that stem cells would be extracted, then turned into the disease that the drug intends to cure, for example, cancer cells, then, the hopefully cancer-curing new drug can be safely tested on the newly created cancer cells.
- Age Reversal: One of the more idealistic and dreamed-about benefits of stem cell research is the veritable Fountain of Youth that it may potentially provide. There is already proof that adult stem cells are able to at least slow down a patient’s aging process, but future research may hold the answer to reversing the aging process altogether. If you’d like to look and feel younger, but don’t want to wait for stem cell research, this course on cutting your age in half will motivate you to be the best version of you possible.
- Help Future Studies: While there are many benefits to stem cell research here and now in the present, there is still much more to be discovered from this relatively new science, and one of its major benefits is the hope and potential for future discoveries. Now that the research has somewhat of a framework laid out for it to expand, in addition to some of the political and ethical furor is dying down, there are huge possibilities for scientists to cure even more diseases and vastly improve the quality of life for this and future generations.
As you can tell, stem cell research has some pretty profound benefits, helping people with a huge variety of issues, from schizophrenia, to cancer, to spinal injuries, to burn victims, and beyond. While these life-saving benefits are inspiring, others, such as reversing the aging process, are downright awe-inspiring (and a little scary). Both the benefits and the methods by which stem cell research function aren’t unlike something you might see in a science fiction movie, but alas, in the year 2014, stem cell research is science fact, and it looks like it might help us all live forever. If you’re intrigued by the scientific aspects of stem cell research, then check out this intro course on biology to learn the basics of this life science.