On March 9, 2009, the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was lifted and research project grants began being funded not long after. While there remains a minority of citizens vehemently opposed to embryonic stem cell research, the potential for unprecedented advancements in the treatment an cure for almost any disease may now be close at hand. But how can embryonic stems cells do this?
There are actually a number of ways that stem cells, both adult and embryonic, can be used to cure disease and promote healing and it is likely that as embryonic stem cell research intensifies even new ways of using them will be discovered.
Regenerative medicine is a field of research that uses stem cells to grow new organs outside of the body, and then use them as transplants to replace diseased or defective organs. Embryonic stem cells have the advantage of becoming any type of tissue in the body. This approach has already been successful in producing skin for transplant in the case of burn victims and in one case last year, a woman received a new bladder grown from stem cells outside her body. This method has also already been used to produce heart muscle for replacement of stroke damaged heart tissue.
In the near future, there is a lot of hope that pancreatic stem cell transplants will provide a cure for type 1 diabetes. Parkinson’s is another disease which may soon be cured through stem cell therapies.
Today, chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer are a shot gun approach because they kill good cells as well as cancer cells. By taking cancer cells from a tumor and then using stem cells to clone them in the laboratory, drugs that target only the cancer cells can be developed. In the case of inoperative cancer tumors (particularly brain cancers) or cancer that has metastasized, these new discriminating drugs could provide new hope where there is none today.
All disease is essentially genetic. In other words, a disease may be directly caused by a specific genetic anomaly, or genetic abnormalities may make us more susceptible to external causes of diseases such as viruses, bacterium and fungi. Once a specific genetic disorder has been identified, gene therapy offers great promise for a cure.
With respect to the autosomes (22 non sex chromosomes), each cell has two copies of each, one from each parent. In the vast majority of cases, only one chromosome may carry an allele that causes a disease or condition. Replacing that autosome entirely or using gene splicing techniques to replace just a segment of it, can produce a normal allele, thus eliminating the underlying genetic condition causing a disease. Stem cells containing the corrected DNA can then be reintroduced in the body to restore normal function and a total cure.
Stem cell research promises great potential for a cure of many diseases and conditions in the future. The need for a lot of surgeries may be eliminated, new therapies for previously terminal conditions will surely be developed and new options for preventative medicine will preclude a lot of diseases from getting started in the first place. Are stem cells the magic bullet for medicine? Perhaps, but maybe they will be even more. It is hard to predict what new developments stem cell research will ultimately yield to help humans live longer healthier lives.
But another law which restricts embryonic stem cell research to existing embryonic stem cell lines is still on the books. The existing stem cell lines are essentially being warn out and new lines are needed to expand and optimize the research. It’s time to pull out all the stops and do the best stem cell research possible.
The source for new embryonic stem cell lines is left over cells from in vitro fertilization techniques, which would otherwise be discarded as medical waste. Why not use these incipient life forms to give new life to victims of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s and so many more afflictions? Seventy percent of the American people are in favor of stem cell research and eager for the cures that embryonic stem cell research will soon provide. It’s time to eliminate the barriers that are impeding embryonic stem cell research altogether and go full speed ahead with ethically sound research and development in this most promising area of medical research.