Dawn of the Stem Cell age

Posted: October 14, 2010 in Articles
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Embryonic stem cell extraction

 

Imagine a world where people can live hundreds of years. A world where failed organs can be replaced instantly. A world almost devoid of death where there are no diseases, no illnesses that cannot be treated, a world of utopian bliss.

This world is the hype generated by research into stem cells but does the reality live up to the hype or does it fall way short? In short we do not know, theories about the outcomes of stem cell research are rife and range from cancer to cures for illnesses like Parkinson’s or Diabetes. Yet while we do not know the answer humanity has just taken a step forward to achieving it.

In early 2009 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eased restrictions on stem cell research and gave US Biotech Company Geron the green light to begin human testing. However, these tests were pushed back after it was found some Rats treated with stem cells had developed Cysts. Geron has claimed these problems are resolved and recently commenced their first test on a human subject.

Yet this experiment is not to test the treatments effectiveness but instead to simply ensure its safety. Some scientific groups believe the treatment will cause cancer like it did in some Rats. One stem cell researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, John Gerhart was quoted in the Washington Post as asking: “Are we transplanting cells that are going to cause tumours?”

On the other side of the argument there are beliefs the treatment will enable the partially paralysed man to walk again. This stems from experiments that allowed partially paralysed Rats to walk after they had been injected with stem cell; this was a major breakthrough and led to the relaxation on stem cell research constraints and the subsequent beginnings of human testing.

Stem cells have the remarkable ability to develop into any one of the 200+ tissues that make up the body. This is because the cells are extracted from fertilised Embryos that are 3-5 days old.

This however, raises the ethical issue of whether this should be classed as murder. Opponents to this treatment, most notably the Catholic Church, have described it as creating life, only to murder it.

Supporters have hit back saying that the only embryos used are surplus stock from IVF treatments and therefore have no chance at life whether they are used for research or not.

Now however, the argument seems to be swinging from whether it’s right to use embryonic stem cells to whether or not embryos are the best source to use. Josephine Quintavalle, from Comment on Reproductive Ethics was quoted by the Independent as saying “not only is it ethically unacceptable but also unnecessary…advances in science mean patients could use their own adult cells.”

 

US Biotech Giant Geron

 

Such fierce opposition to the use of embryos has led to research into other means of obtaining the cells. One of the most popular is using umbilical cord blood which contains large amounts of stem cells and doesn’t generate the ethical questions of ending a potential life.

While the US leads the way in this research there are calls for the UK to maintain its funding as Britain has led this field with ethical research and scientists want to remain a big player in the futuristic world of stem cell treatments.

Every day in the UK there are 4 people who are permanently paralysed with back or neck spinal cord injuries. If these experiments are successful in the next few years we could see these injuries become temporary and very easily fixed by a simple injection.

The Late Christopher Reeve was a staunch supporter of this research and dreamed it would one day enable him to walk again. Unfortunately he died in 2005 without his dream ever coming true; in fact he died while stem cell research was in its infancy, without ever knowing if it was a realistic dream.

All eyes are on Geron and the scientific world waits with baited breath to see its published findings and see what the future of humanity will be. Will the imagined world described at the beginning be a true possibility? Or will the cells be more harmful to humans than we could have ever imagined?

Only time can reveal the answer.

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