The first stem cell line using human embryos was created by Dr. James Thompson in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin. He used embryo stem cells to grow healthy, functioning heart cells.
Stem cell research is a highly controversial issue. Stem cell research involves the use of cells from human embryos that are a few days old, and occasionally, cells from fetuses greater than eight weeks old. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research compare it to abortion because the cells are capable of producing human life. Proponents of stem cell research point out stem cells are destroyed on a daily basis in fertility clinics – these stem cells are unused embryos from couples undergoing fertility treatments – and that rather than destroying these cells, scientists ought to be able to use them for medical study. In the US, federal law currently prohibits providing federal funding for any kind of stem cell research, however, the research that has been done has shown great promise for a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Dr. James Thompson’s success opened up the possibility of generating healthy cells to replace all kinds of diseased cells in the body, including the ability to replace diseased cells in the brain. Further research has been hindered in a major way because of the federal ban on funding, but the research that has been conducted has only increased the excitement of scientists and doctors more.
One common delusion about stem cell research is that the debate could be stemmed if adult stem cells were used in the research. Adult stem cells do not offer anywhere near the potential for regeneration that embryonic do. Adult stem cells are thought to be “multipotent,” meaning they can only generate certain types of cells. Stem cells from embryos, on the other hand, can be “totipotent” or “pluripotent.” Totipotent cells are embryonic cells in their first few days of development. These cells have the potential to grow into any kind of cell in the human body. Embryonic cells are “pluripotent” after a period of around four days. At this point, the cells can develop into any kind of cell in the body with the exception of the cells needed to create a fetus. Cleary totipotent and pluripotent cells are the most desirable for research because their potential is nearly limitless, allowing scientists to experiment with cures for different diseases with ease.
Though stem cell research has shown great promise in the quest to cure medical problems like diabetes, spinal chord injuries, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, it cannot be assumed that stem cell research definitely holds the key to the cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia. In addition to understanding how normal and abnormal cells develop and how to heal abnormal cells, scientists must also develop some way for their stem cell discoveries to be tested in Alzheimer’s patients to ensure they are effective and safe. The patient testing of stem cells generated in the lab might be the most difficult issue facing scientists, beyond the ethics debate. Doctors and scientists still must understand much more about the causes of Alzheimer’s and dementia before they can be sure what would offer a cure.
Despite the federal ban on government of funding embryonic stem cell research, the research itself is not illegal when funded privately. People can also donate their stem cells for scientific research – women can donate blood from umbilical chords, and couples with unused embryos from fertility clinics may donate those embryos to scientists. Many patients, and their families, who are affected by conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, for which stem cell research offers a reason for hope, find themselves wanting to encourage future research.
Stem cell research potentially opens the door to even more issues of medical ethics, like designer babies and cloning. The debate over stem cell research is likely to continue for a long time to come. This, however, does not mean that research will stall. Countries outside of the US who have different policies about embryonic research continue to conduct experiments and attempt to generate healthy cells. At the same time, the ability to generate healthy brain cells in a laboratory that could replace brain cells damaged by Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia offers hope to some families struggling with the devastating effect of these diseases. It could help a great deal treating your Alzheimer’s.
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