Through the years, the field of biotechnology focused more on the engineering side,
such as the mechanics and functions of machines like MRIs and CAT scanners. Recently though, the field has exploded as it fused with the study of genetics. Through the manipulation of genes, biotechnology has become one of the most cutting-edge sciences, and no subset as much as stem cell research. Two types have been extensively studied: embryonic stem cells (ESCs) and adult stem cells (ASCs). The ESCs are much more powerful because they are known to be omnipotent, or able to derive into any specialized cell in the body. ASCs are only semi-potent, meaning they can derive into few types of cells, limited mostly by their point of origin in the body. Scientists have found ways to make ASCs become pluripotent, known as induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
However, due to ethical issues, they are debated and not able to be used as effectively as possible. Stem cells, the new frontier in medicine, promise revolutionary medicinal breakthroughs and must be harnessed to their full potential.
The most powerful type of stem cell is embryonic stem cells. They are the origins of the human body, the creators of every cell in the body. To be able to harvest and harness this omnipotence for medicine would be unbelievably useful. No injury would be too severe, no disease would be too lethal, and worn out organs would be replaceable if scientists could grow new organs and tissues at will for the patients. Embryonic stem cells are only in existence for the first few divisions of an embryo which lasts for about a two day period from 3-5 days old. Extraction of the embryonic stem cells also destroys the embryo, which is a main point of contention for people who are against stem cell research. Those that believe life begins at conception therefore consider the destruction of an embryo to be murder, which has led to a number of restrictions on embryonic research. Consequently, the scientific process has been thoroughly disrupted with regard to embryonic research, which hampers the work towards cures for degenerative diseases such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, etc. Instead of being able to directly research how to use ESCs for immediately life-saving applications, scientists have had to spend the majority
of their time researching other, more politically acceptable, alternatives to the embryonic cells.
Adult stem cells are the second and least controversial type of stem cells that are currently being researched. However, most people know little about them due to the political focus on the more contentious embryonic stem cells. Adult stem cells, ASCs, are much less appealing to popular culture because they are much less powerful than embryonic stem cells in that they can only differentiate into a few types of cells. They are spread out through the body: “adult stem cells have been found in the bone marrow, blood stream, cornea and retina of the eye, the dental pulp of the tooth, liver, skin, gastrointestinal tract, and pancreas” (Lerner, 2006) There are very few ASCs in the body and their main purpose is repair and maintenance on the skin cells and bone cells. However, they too offer many possible advances in medicine, especially since bone and skin are normally the most
common area of treatable injury. Adult stem cells are limited in potential to only a few different types of cells but the ability to regrow any number of cells that are exact matches to the patients’ existing cells extinguishes the possibility of the immune system rejecting the cells. Medical scientists would be able to grow skin and bone tissue from the patient in a culture before grafting it back onto the victim. Another possible application for adult stem cells that is not linked to humans is the extraction and growth of adult stem cells from animals’ muscles. Grown in a culture, they could continuously divide and provide a renewable, humane, and constant stream of food. The muscle cells formed could even be pseudo-exercised by growing them on a mesh that could be stretched and contracted to mimic the motions of actual muscles. This is an effort that is being pursued by the In Vitro Meat Consortium and New Harvest initiatives. Little progress has been made, but to successfully engineer animal-less flesh would theoretically take four main steps. First, stem cells from farm animals would have to be obtained. Then a process for efficient
differentiation of these into muscles cells and the introduction of the correct growth hormones must be tested and confirmed. Finally, the muscle cells must be arranged in a three-dimensional structure. (Haagsman, 2009). Even the slightly potent adult stem cells offer mind-boggling possibilities and could advance quality of life tenfold, but they still lack the potential that the less accepted embryonic cells promise. Adult stem cells are, however, the closest thing to embryonic stem cells that can be safely acquired, but what if they could be reversed? What if scientists could find a way to turn the clock back
on the adult stem cells and have them become the omnipotent cells that they once were?
Researchers are working to find ways to create stem cells that are as powerful as embryonic stem cells from adult cells, known as induced pluripotent stem cells or iPSCs. These cells are derived from adult stem cells by inserting different genes into adult stem cells through an engineered virus which simulate early development and push the cell back towards its omnipotent origins. The cells are not quite omnipotent, but pluripotent, meaning they can differentiate into almost all of the different types of cells, but not all. The
benefits of such a cell are immediately visible in the medical field. From a regenerative medicine standpoint, such cells could be engineered and kept on hand for every person to allow for quick and perhaps lifesaving replacements after terrible accidents or for swift healing of a wound that would otherwise require much more inconvenient treatment. Much like the adult stem cells, immune rejection would not be a concern because the cells would be taken from the person’s own body in the first place. From an engineering standpoint, work is being done on creating biological printers that can print sheets of cells to a ‘blueprint’. This also implies a possibility of printed, functioning organs
(but that is another topic for another day) which would be dramatically more plausible with the integration of working induced pluripotent stem cells. Another area in which iPSCs would be extremely useful is disease study. Researchers would be able to directly study the effects of certain diseases and possible cures on very specific parts of the body without putting anyone at risk. The greatest weapon against disease and injury is knowledge, and induced pluripotent stem cells could be the answer that would strike the killing blow on these menaces. There are quite a few scientific issues with iPSCs. Scientists are still not quite exactly sure of the exact process for reverse engineering the stem cells, and once they succeed, the cells are not as stable as they were before. This is a consequence of the reverse engineering and the uncertain procedures that are a result of insufficient study. The instability of the cells could lead to dangerous mutations and possibly cancer, which would completely cancel out any positive effects of the research and most likely throw the ill-informed pubic into an anti-stem cell frenzy, further delaying
and disrupting the amazing medical potential that is stem cell research.
The ethical debate on stem cell research, whether it should be embraced and funded or turned away from in disgust and never touched again, revolves around a few important ideas. Many people believe that the process in which scientists obtain embryonic stem cells is morally wrong. The cells are harvested from in vitro embryos, meaning from an egg that was fertilized in a laboratory. As discussed earlier, this can be construed as murder depending on one’s opinion on when life actually begins: “[embryonic harvesting is] the destruction of developing human beings” (Keiper, 2010). Additionally, the argument can be made that to use embryonic stem cells is to modify the natural order of things and that the scientists are ‘playing God’ by creating and using living cells. This argument is very closely linked to that of the dissenters on cloning, saying that humans cannot become creators of life due to various religious beliefs. Induced pluripotent stem cells occupy a much less contested space in the political life due to the fact that they can be taken without destroying life and can be agreed to by the subject. The only reason iPSC research exists in the first place is to avoid those two unsavory side effects of embryonic research. The ability to choose whether or not the process of creating iPSCs takes place makes it like any other medical procedure instead of a radical operation. One issue to be aware of is the applications in disease study. Human testing is on very shaky ground ethically and using someone’s grown organs or tissues to study the effects of dangerous diseases tiptoes on a very thin line between human experimentation and medical research. However, these ethical issues should not be allowed to stop the development and discovery of the most powerful medical tool available to mankind.
The body is an organic machine. To operate and run correctly, it must have the right pieces in the right spot and under the right conditions. All of this is developed through growth from one incredibly potent cell. The cells that follow are equally potent stem cells that can become anything in the body. If these cells can be acquired, through embryonic harvesting or through induced pluripotent stem cells, the possibilities of regeneration and maintenance are almost incalculable. Many ethical issues against stem cell research, mostly from religious institutions that do not believe men should have that type of power, but the potential to do good with stem cell technology is too great to pass over. Stem cells need to be researched and understood to the point that they can be unleashed to their full
potential, regardless of the cost.
Keiper, Adam, and Yuval, Levin. “Federal Funds Should Not Be Used for
Research That Destroys Embryos.” Stem Cells. Jacqueline Langwith.
Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2012. Opposing Viewpoints. Rpt. from “Stem
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Lerner, Ed and Lerner, Brenda “Stem Cells: Scientific Progress and Future
Research Directions.” Medicine, Health, and Bioethics: Essential
Primary Sources. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 72-75. Opposing Viewpoints In
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Svendsen, Clive N., and
Allison D. Ebert. Encyclopedia of Stem Cell Research. Thousand Oaks, CA:
SAGE Publications, Inc., 2008. SAGE knowledge. Web. 15 Apr. 2013.
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