In the simplest terms, a stem cell is the building block for all specialized cells in the body. These natural "templates" will eventually undergo differentiation and become the building blocks for the heart, lungs, muscles, tissues and nerves. As these cells age, they are biologically programmed to diversify. The stem cell also helps repair damaged portions of the body. For example, a skin cell will divide into one skin cell and another stem cell. The skin cell will migrate to the surface to be used in tissue repair while the stem cell will remain for future necessary cellular division. Their importance in the medical community is the fact that since these cells are undifferentiated, they can be engineered to treat injuries such as spinal cord damage that was impossible to rectify previously.
So, the three main functions of the stem cell are:
- These cells are the building blocks for every major body tissue.
- The stem cell helps repair and replace damaged areas of the body.
- In medical science, the stem cell represents the framework from which other cells can be manufactured.
How Stem Cell Treatments Will Work
Stem cell treatment first revolves around the cultivation and harvesting of these yet undeveloped cells. They can either be extracted from a fetus or, as mentioned earlier, be cloned from other cells themselves. These cells then will undergo a transplantation to the area of the body or the organ that needs to be repaired. In theory, they will then automatically specialize into their specific function and act as any normal cell would.
Another interesting aspect of this type of biological engineering is that it has now become possible to literally "grow" functioning organs in a laboratory. Stem cells are placed on a "lattice" of existing, previously specialized cells such as those of a lung. These cells will then develop into a fully functional lung. The hope is that in the near future, organ transplants will make use of this technology as opposed to having to wait for a donor of a specific health and blood type.
Summarily, the main processes that are involved in stem cell treatment are:
- A harvesting of these cells; either through use of an embryo of through cloning technologies.
- A transplantation of these unspecified cells into an area of the body.
- A subsequent differentiation of the stem cell to suit the required biological need.
While this type of therapy is exciting and represents some of the most cutting edge medical science, there are nonetheless a few pitfalls that will need to be addressed.
The most frequently debatable subject is the harvesting of embryonic stem cells from a human foetus. There is an ongoing debate as to when a developing embryo is considered "human" and this conjecture has raised several religious and ethical questions.
Another factor is the fact that immunosuppressant drugs may still need to be used. Although these cells are considered the anonymous building blocks of the human body, there are still questions regarding the body's rate of rejection in the case of organ transplants and other types of therapy.
Finally, many opponents of this technology point to the fact that it is still prohibitively expensive. Treatments are as-of-yet unavailable to the public as a whole and a sizeable number of analysts are also concerned with the amount of additional funding it may take to properly address all safety requirements.
To review, some of the potential downsides to stem cell research are commonly seen as:
- The ethical questions regarding the extraction of the stem cell from an embryo.
- The potential continued need for immunosuppressant therapies.
- The financial and temporal concerns involved.