By: Ishika Kohli
Think back to when you watched sci-fi movies when you were younger and witnessed cloning. You may think that cloning is a concept in movies to help increase ratings, or perhaps something that will only happen on Mars, but cell cloning is possible and prominent in the medical field through stem cells.
Stem cells are unique due to their unspecialized property in which they can take the form of various specialized cells. Through this, their function can be altered, which is beneficial in medicine. For example, when one has a heart attack, and their heart tissue is rapidly dying, stem cells can be inserted to help create more cells. Stem cells are present in two forms: embryonic stem cells and somatic or adult stem cells, both of which have slightly different properties and ethical implications.
Adult stem cells are located in specialized tissues, but themselves are undifferentiated. The main function of these cells is to repair damaged cells as mentioned in the example prior. Although they are undifferentiated, because they reside in a certain location of the body, they cannot turn into any cell on command, but rather the one they are near. Also, they are not able to reproduce as frequently, and can only replicate themselves a certain number of times. Aside from these limitations, however, through these stem cells, our tissues can repair themselves if need be through an injury. One strong advantage of adult stem cells is that the chance of rejection in the body is lowered if one’s cells are engineered and then inserted back into their body.
Another type of stem cell is the embryonic stem cell. These cells are present when an embryo is in the uterus aged three to five days; a child essentially grows from a blastocyst (a group of unspecialized cells) to many specialized cells. These cells are pluripotent, or able to develop into many other cells, so they bypass the limitation of the adult stem cells: they can be any cell. Furthermore, regarding the embryo example, those couple cells turn into tens of thousands of developed cells, and thus these stem cells are also able to reproduce more frequently in comparison to adult stem cells. These cells, however, may be rejected more often and have strong ethical objections. Because the cells are embryonic, an embryo has to be destroyed for the cells to be used for clinical purposes. This does not resonate with many people, and in doing so, research has been slowed.
There is no doubt that embryonic stem cell research can lead to many amazing feats, but there are many important obstacles to overcome regarding the cells. The research being conducted is new, yet concrete, and there are many future ideas in the works of testing.
“Stem Cell Basics I.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/1.htm.