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Modern medicine and approaches to disease treatment have undergone a paradigm shift due to significant advances in regenerative medicine. This field of stem cell research has remarkable potential in the development of therapies to regenerate and repair dysfunctional cells. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells with two defining characteristics of both perpetual self-renewal while maintaining an unspecialized state and the potency to specialize into several other cell types. The therapy process includes the utilization of biochemicals and controlled environments to set conditions that trigger the specialization of stem cells into the desired product and injecting it as a method of delivery. Scientists have discovered various sources of stem cells in the human body. Pluripotent, embryonic stem cells are isolated from the inner cell mass of the blastocyst in a fertilized egg and can differentiate into any adult cell type. Their high versatility enables them to be used in transplantation therapies for diseases like Parkinson’s, as well as growing replacement organs. Adult cells are multipotent cells to replenish dead cells that can be obtained from tissues such as bone marrow, and are currently used in the treatment of Leukemia. Because they have already committed to a certain development pathway, they can only specialize into the cell types from their originating organs. Recent discoveries show that haematopoietic stem cells can also be sourced from umbilical cord blood. These cells, with low differentiation potential, can be frozen to be used at a later stage in the baby’s life to treat blood and immune diseases with no risk of rejection, and come in limited quantities. Groundbreaking findings also now enable scientists to create induced pluripotent stem cells through reprogramming adult stem cells and introducing four key genes to transition them back into an embryonic-like state.
These properties give stem cells the potential to tackle several conditions initially thought to be incurable, like Stargardt’s macular dystrophy. This is a genetically inherited mutation in the ABCA4 gene, which produces a protein that impairs energy transport to photoreceptor cells in the retina. This causes them to degenerate and induces early-onset vision loss. Embryonic stem cells can be induced to differentiate into retinal pigment epithelial and photoreceptor cells to combat disease progression and partly restore vision. In clinical trials conducted by Ocata Therapeutics in 2015 on nine patients, 50,000 of these cells were injected under the retina to nourish photoreceptors and slow down their depletion. As hoped, the cells attached to the eye’s membrane with no signs of rejection, and improved visual acuity. Individuals with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) can benefit from the transplantation of haematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) in the bone marrow. MS is a chronic autoimmune disease that targets a human’s central nervous system that gradually destroys myelin and impedes brain-to-body communication. HSCs have the ability to differentiate into lymphocytes, a subtype of white blood cells. These cells are harvested from an individual’s bone marrow and are infused into the patient’s bloodstream subsequent to immunosuppressive therapy. HSCT is an FDA approved procedure that when successful, enables the immune system to rebuild itself within 3-6 months and stops inflammation.
While its revolutionary potential to treat a vast array of seemingly incurable diseases is highly evident, the use of stem cells has wide-ranging ethical debate surrounding it. The bulk of the controversy is in regards to the use of embryonic stem cells, as deriving them involves destroying the blastocyst, of which many opposers classify as a human life. Others believe that they are simply a collection of cells with no neural activity, and have also not been accorded any particular legal or moral status. Moreover, a portion of these cells are also not destined to be part of the fetus and can form into the placenta. This essentially then becomes a debate as to what stage in development something is considered to be a human life and separate entity. Another question is in regards to whether or not it is ethical to refrain from treating millions of people with life-threatening diseases through using donated cells from IVF, when the cure is likely at hand. Ultimately, it is up to law-making bodies to determine whether or not stem cells reap more benefits to society than the potential dangers they may or may not entail.
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