What are stem cells? Simply put, stem cells are primitive cells that give rise to other types of cells. Also called progenitor cells, there are several kinds of stem cells. Totipotent cells are considered the "master" cells of the body because they contain all the genetic information needed to create all the cells of the body plus the placenta, which nourishes the human embryo. Human cells have this capacity only during the first few divisions of a fertilized egg. After 3 - 4 divisions of totipotent cells, there follows a series of stages in which the cells become increasingly specialized. The next stage of division results in pluripotent cells, which are highly versatile and can give rise to any cell type except the cells of the placenta. At the next stage, cells become multipotent, meaning they can give rise to several other cell types, but those types are limited in number. An example of multipotent cells is hematopoietic cells?blood stem cells that can develop into several types of blood cells, but cannot develop into brain cells. At the end of the long chain of cell divisions that make up the embryo are "terminally differentiated" cells?cells that are considered to be permanently committed to a specific function.
Scientists have long held the opinion that differentiated cells cannot be altered or caused to behave in any way other than the way in which they have been naturally committed. New research, however, has even called that assumption into question. In recent stem cell experiments, scientists have been able to persuade blood stem cells to behave like neurons, or brain cells. Scientists now believe that stem cell research could reveal far more vital information about our bodies than was previously known.
What is the future of cell therapy? Despite the many challenges before us, most scientists believe that cell therapy will revolutionize medicine. With the use of cell therapies, we may soon have dramatic cures for cancer, Parkinson's, diabetes, kidney disease, multiple sclerosis, macular degeneration and a host of other diseases. Cell therapies have also shown great promise in helping to repair catastrophic spinal injuries, and helping victims of paralysis regain movement. It is even possible that the human life span could be greatly extended due to the replenishment of tissues in aging organs. We may even have the ability one day to grow our own organs for transplantation from our own stem cells, eliminating the danger of organ rejection. While we will undoubtedly encounter the limits of cell therapy one day, there is every reason to hope that this revolutionary new approach will result in radically improved ways to treat disease.
I was recently at a genetics education meeting in Washington DC, the opinion there was that we are at the brink of some exciting new discoveries and that a jump in life expectancy for humans (in the 30 year range) was not far off.
Interestingly, you can donate the blood from your baby's umbelical cord to be used in embryonic stem cell research. I read that in a paper, recently, although I don't know how they do stem cell research with it, I know its being used.
Yes, it would be prudent, if abortions are done, to not throw away that life, but to use it for a purpose. But that is such a hot-button issue that people don't use their heads about it. But, there are other ways to get embryonic stem cells outside of abortion.
My only hesitation about all of this is wondering how many poor people will benefit? Health disparity is a huge issue, as much as more so as these diseases in their own right. Access to quality care, to the tests and the procedures, and the drugs needed to cure or live with chronic or dibilitating or terminal disease is very expensive. With no insurance it is likely that your options are limited or none.
I am not speaking to the politics of it here or what should or should not be done. But working at the Department of Health, I can tell you this issue is HUGE in this country.
(who is waiting now to get flamed)