Any time stem cells are mentioned, there is almost always some sort of controversy involved. Yet a new study performed at UCLA shows that stem cell therapy can help ease blindness, the first human trial of embryonic stem cells to ever be performed. This is one of many private studies showing how embryonic stem cells can lead to more advances in modern medicine.
Stem cells are cells that are capable of differentiating into certain types of cells to fit the needs of the body. Adult humans have a certain amount of stem cells, usually residing in bone marrow. But the most gratuitous amounts of stem cells found come from embryos.
When a fetus is forming within the first eight weeks, it is normally just a collection of stem cells. During the second trimester, these stem cells begin to develop into certain tissues. A stem cell can grow into almost any type of cell, even nerve cells which are extremely difficult to reproduce. Scientifically speaking, an human organ can be grown from a collection of stem cells, so the possibilities and advances involving stem cell research are endless.
Although there is much controversy involving the use of stem cells from aborted embryos, medical researchers have found ways to side step the issue. Umbilical cords are a safe way to harvest stem cells and can be kept frozen for many years. In 2006, scientists at Newscastle University in England were able to generate healthy, working liver cells strictly from umbilical cord stem cells. Although these stem cells are useful, they are multipotent, meaning they can only differentiate into a limited number of cells. Freezing umbilical cords can be costly too, and families only feel the need to do so if their child is at high risk for a specific disorder.
The side effects of stem cell treatment, however, are still unknown. Scientists and researchers are fairly optimistic about the medical advances that can be made via stem cell treatment. Yet, because most of the research is privately funded and few human trials exist, it is difficult to say whether stem cell treatment has any damaging or lasting side effects.
Despite the obstacles this new form of treatment is facing, stem cell therapy is the future of medicine. Muscular dystrophy, Osteoporosis, even Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can all be potential targets for advances in stem cell research.
Much like the stem cell’s options to differentiate, the potential advances in medicine due to stem cell treatment are endless.