Stem Cell Research
By Win Dawson, allied health world contributing writer
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What makes stem cell research an interesting career now?
You have probably heard media sound bites on the controversy over stem cell research, but you might want to know why it is such an interesting career option now. The reason is simply that stem cell research is still in its infancy and there are reports of a shortage of professionals in this field already.
Stem cell history goes back to the mid-1800's when scientists made the discovery that certain types of cells could create other cells. Further discoveries in the 1900's, including the transplantation of bone marrow, eventually led to the first successful isolation and growth of human embryonic stem cells in 1998 by James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin. In simple terms, he discovered that stem cells can be taken from adult tissue or embryo cells and be cultivated to divide and develop into a wide variety of cell types.
The stem cell researcher's job involves learning about a cell's basic properties and the characteristics that differentiate one specialized cell from another. There are different types of stem cells with varying potential for replication to repair or replace damaged tissues which, of course, could improve the quality of life for many people. The list of unanswered questions about how these cells can be so malleable, how they go about regenerating healthy tissue, and what structures in the body can utilize stem cells is endless. Each new discovery begs more questions. And, that's good news for you if a career in stem cell research is capturing your attention.
What are they and where are stem cells found?
Every human body contains stem cells that allow the body to regenerate tissue. Many of these tissues are naturally renewed on a regular basis just like blood, bone marrow, and skin. However, not all tissues have a stem cell. Scientists do not yet have a complete understanding of exactly which organs have stem cells.
Stem Cells can be taken from adult tissue or an embryo. Embryonic cells continuously divide and have the ability to develop into a wide variety of cell types. They are not mature cells of one specific type, so they are cultivated to become cells of a specified tissue or organ. Research shows that embryonic stem cells are easier to harvest and also have a far greater ability to reproduce as different types of cells than those in the adult. However, adult stem cells do offer a lot of research potential and, when a person's own cells are used, have a distinct advantage, as rates of rejection by the immune system are much lower. Adult cells have shown a limited potential for the number of different types of cells they develop. They also lack the ability possessed by the embryonic cell to divide over an indefinite period of time. However, just a few years ago, scientists were successful in converting adult skin cells into stem cells that have capabilities similar to embryonic cells. Researchers are not sure how dynamic this reprogramming can become, but are actively investigating the potential of this new discovery.
How are stem cells used?
At this time in the history of stem cell research, the biomedical opportunities appear endless and researchers are aggressively pursuing a wide range of research paths. However, the process requires scientific methods and can be slow. One primary area of focus is an initiative to discover a way to reverse juvenile diabetes (also called type 1 diabetes) by using stem cells to develop insulin-producing beta cells for people whose pancreas does not produce insulin. Another important target is cancer therapy. For example, a patient with multiple myeloma can have her own stem cells harvested from her blood before a course of chemotherapy, then transplanted back into her blood stream to begin reproducing healthy plasma cells. Some scientists believe that eventually stem cell technology will allow us to use our own stem cells to regenerate organs that may begin to fail, even before full-blown disease strikes.
Why is this a hot topic in political conversations?
In the short history of stem cell research, regulation has been hotly debated and several United States presidents have been involved in decisions regarding research access to unused fertility clinic embryos and the availability of federal funding. Attitudes, policies, and laws vary considerably from one country to another and it appears that it will continue to be a contentious issue in many parts of the world.
Some people feel strongly that there are serious ethical issues related to the use of human cells—primarily embryonic stem cells—in research. Some opponents believe that human life begins with the fertilized egg and any use of young embryos is immoral. Other opponents fear that the use of stem cells will lead us to human cloning.
Proponents of this research believe that the benefits of using surplus fertility clinic embryos that could aid research to reduce disabling chronic diseases for millions of people is far better than simply discarding them.
There are many ways to view the pros and cons. And, the issue can become very personal and subjective. For example, would the parent of a child with juvenile diabetes change his position on the issue if research proves that his child's health and quality of life could be improved with stem cell therapy? There are no easy answers, but it appears that the full significance of stem cell therapy is just beginning to unfold. While career opportunities in this arena are increasing rapidly, regulatory policy and funding sources for stem cell research may not stabilize for a number of years.