Healthcare has come a long way. The way that diseases are treated now is very, very different from the way that they have been treated hundreds of years ago. Moreover, the kind of diseases that existed has also changed. Various diseases have been eradicated, cured, or made less harmful. All of this has happened by combining various types of medicinal fields. These fields also keep on evolving each and every day. The latest in the field of medicines is stem cell research. Just like other forms of medicine, it has its own advantages and disadvantages. So let us look into it.
WHAT IS STEM CELL RESEARCH?
As is evident from its name, stem cell research refers to the scientific study of stem cells. It studies the properties of stem cells and their potential use in medicine.
In other words, stem cells are blank cells. They are cells that can be developed into other cells. Some researchers also claim that they have the ability to repair damaged tissues.
In scientific terms, stem cells are undifferentiated cells.
The human body starts out as a single cell. This is the fertilized egg or zygote. A zygote is formed after the sperm fertilizes the ovum. The zygote starts to divide into 2 cells, then into 4, and so on. After a point, these cells begin to differentiate. This means that the cells begin to take on separate and distinct bodily functions. For example, white blood cells have the responsibility of fighting invaders and pathogens. This happens through a process called differentiation.
At the end of this process, stem cells remain undifferentiated.
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This means that they do not have specific roles. Additionally, this also means they’re capable of developing into cells that serve numerous functions in different parts of the body.
Unlike differentiated cells, stem cells can divide themselves into an indefinite number of times. Differentiated cells can only replicate a limited number of times before they begin to break down. Stem cells can make an unlimited number of copies of themselves. Upon division, a stem cell can either remain a stem cell or turn into a differentiated cell, such as a muscle cell or a red blood cell.
WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF STEM CELLS?
There are mainly four types of stem cells. They are:
Adult Stem Cells (ASCs)
These stem cells are found within certain differentiated cells. They can renew themselves or generate new cells that can replenish dead or damaged tissue. Even though the name suggests otherwise, children and infants also have ASCs. They can be found in the umbilical cord, placenta, bone marrow, muscle, brain, fat tissue, skin, gut, etc.
Some researchers suggest that adult stem cells can only transform into the type of cell they reside in. However, others argue the opposite. Either way, they cannot transform into as many types of differentiated cells as embryonic stem cells can.
They are also known as somatic stem cells.
There are various subtypes of ASCs. These include hematopoietic stem cells (blood stem cells), mesenchymal stem cells, neural stem cells, epithelial stem cells, and skin stem cells.
Embryonic Stem Cells (ESCs)
Embryonic stem cells come from human embryos that are three to five days old. They are harvested during a process called in-vitro fertilization. This involves fertilizing an embryo in a laboratory instead of inside the female body. These stem cells have the potential to become almost any cell type. However, they are found only during the first stages of development.
Embryonic stem cells are also known as pluripotent stem cells.
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs)
These stem cells can be understood as de-differentiated cells. They are stem cells created in the laboratory. This is done by introducing a differentiated cell to embryonic genes. By this process, these cells revert to their stem-cell-like state. After this, these de-differentiated cells can transform into any kind of specialized cell. Thus, they can produce new cells for any function.
However, scientific research is being done to find a way to produce iPSCs safely.
Cord Blood and Amniotic Fluid Stem Cells
These are stem cells found within the umbilical cord and amniotic fluid.
Cord blood stem cells can be harvested right after birth. They have proven successful in treating blood cancers and genetic blood disorders in children.
Amniotic fluid is the fluid that surrounds a fetus developing in the uterus. However, science has not yet completely understood the usage of amniotic fluid stem cells.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Stem Cell Research
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Multiple Treatment Options
Currently, stem cell research is most commonly used to treat leukemia and lymphoma patients with bone marrow transplantation.
Prochymal, a stem cell therapy has been conditionally approved in Canada to manage graft-vs-host disease in children who do not respond to steroid treatments. There is another treatment that can potentially help people with severe limbal deficiencies because of burns to the eye. It is called Holoclar.
Stem cell research allows scientists to understand the functioning of cells that make up our bodies. This is beneficial on two levels. Firstly, it allows us to create new treatments to cure or slow down the damage to our cells. Through this, it helps in extending average life expectancy rates, stopping diseases, and even reducing the costs of medical treatments. Secondly, it helps us understand how an illness or a disease develops. In other words, it gives us insights into where it starts, what it feeds off of, et cetera.
As some would argue, the most wonderful and magical property of stem cells is regeneration. That is to say that stem cells can be regrown in laboratories.
This means that people who have lungs that have failed or are about to, or missing limbs, then they can get a new one. One that isn’t a prosthetic. This also offers the chance to improve insulin production, repair damaged heart muscle after a heart attack, repair torn tendons or ligaments, and even attack cancers or viruses.
In addition to all this, embryonic stem cells also come off with the potential to treat genetic disorders or birth defects.
Disadvantages of Stem Cell Research
Difficult To Obtain
Stem cells can be obtained in one of two ways. An embryo needs to be grown in a culture in order to collect embryonic stem cells. After they have been harvested, they take a long time to become viable enough to be used in therapy. Alternatively, adult stem cells can be obtained from human bodies. But this is an extremely painful procedure for the patient.
Since a lot of high-end research is required even for individual cases, stem cell treatment is extremely expensive. In the United States of America, the cost of a single stem cell treatment is estimated at $10,000. However, outside of the USA, costs as high as $100,000 have been reported. Another finance-related problem that people face while getting this treatment is that it is usually not covered by insurance. Since this treatment is experimental in most of the cases, insurance companies see it as a risk.
Experimental and Uncertain
Stem cell research and treatment is in its starting phase right now. There is no solid proof of this treatment working in all instances of a certain disease. Thus, most instances of stem cell treatment being used are experimental. As a result, there is a degree of uncertainty attached to it. Additionally, there is no knowledge about the long-term side effects that this treatment might have on patients.
Pros and Cons of Stem Cell Research
|Multiple treatment options||
Difficult to obtain
Experimental and uncertain