Stem cells are cells that have not differentiated into a specific type of cell and can become any part of the body that is needed (Stem cells and diseases, 2009). There are three different ways for scientists and doctors to harvest stems cells to use in research and in current treatments. The most commonly used stem cells come from adult humans and are found within bone marrow. Stem cells are also found in the umbilical cord and are harvested and stored shortly after birth to be used in a national bank, similar to a blood bank. The most controversial and richest source of stem cells is human embryos, which generally come from unused fertilized eggs for in vitro fertilization. No matter what the source is, stem cell research can advance medical science beyond simple treatment of diseases and into cures for some of the most insidious illnesses.
Currently stem cells are harvested from the person’s bone marrow they are used to treat (Stem cells and diseases, 2009). Generally, these stem cells are used to rebuild the immune system and sometimes other organs which have been compromised or damaged by radiation or chemotherapy treatments, most commonly in bone marrow transplants for leukemia patients (Stem cell research, 2009). Since both treatments can reduce the effectiveness or completely destroy the immune system in patients, rebuilding immunity is crucial. When the immune system is compromised, simple illnesses like the common cold can kill a person, and using stem cells to speed the process of rebuilding immunity has saved many lives.
Umbilical stem cells have the same properties as adult stem cells and can only be used to treat specific conditions (Stem cell research, 2009). This is due to the fact that stem cells in a fully formed human can only create the cells they are programmed to create. If a person needs to have bone marrow replaced, it can only be replaced with bone marrow stem cells, which is the most successful use of stem cells to date. In 2007, James Thomson, through the University of Wisconsin, discovered a method to force adult and umbilical stem cells to behave as embryonic stem cells and create any cell needed, called Induced Pluripotent stem cells. This method is currently not used to treat human diseases due to the fact that the patient would be more likely to develop tumors and cancer cells from these mutated stem cells (Experiment Resources, 2008).
While still in the experimental stages, embryonic stem cells show the most promise to curing diseases in humans (Stem cell research, 2009). Since embryonic stem cells contain no preprogramming, scientists can use them to create any cell necessary for treatment. Previously incurable diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s could be cured in the future using embryonic stem cells (Stem cells and diseases, 2009). By using embryonic stem cells it may be possible to clone your heart or other organ to be used during a life saving transplant which would reduce the risk of rejection to almost zero percent. Cancer could become a disease only read about in history books if embryonic stem cells were used as treatment. With the use of embryonic stem cells, brain and spinal cord injuries could be treatable, and possibly even fully reversible.
Stem cell research may be controversial to some people and others may view it as unethical, but the benefits of stem cell research are clear. Even if stem cells can only do half of what scientists are theorizing, the benefits of the research far outweigh the ethical concerns. Even with what stem cells are able to currently treat, the research done so far has proven a great benefit to the advancement of medical science and the treatment of previously incurable diseases.