Stem cells are biological cells found in all multi cellular organisms, that can divide through mitosis and differentiate into diverse specialized cell types. In mammals, there are two broad types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells that are isolated from the inner cell mass of blastocysts, and adult stem cells that are found in various tissues. In adult organisms, stem cells and progenitor cells act as a repair system for the body, replenished in adult tissues. In a developing embryo, stem cells can differentiate into all the specialized cells, but also maintain the normal turnover of regenerative organs, such as blood, skin, or intestinal tissues.
Stem cells can now be artificially grown and transformed into specialized cell types with characteristics consistent with cells of various tissues such as muscles or nerves through cell culture. Highly plastic adult stem cells are routinely used in medical therapies. Stem cells can be taken from a variety of sources, including umbilical cord blood and bone marrow. Embryonic cell lines and autologous embryonic stem cells generated through therapeutic cloning have also been proposed as promising candidates for future therapies.
Medical researchers believe that stem cell therapy has the potential to dramatically change the treatment of human disease. A number of adult stem cell therapies already exist, particularly bone marrow transplants that are used to treat leukemia. In the future, medical researchers anticipate being able to use technologies derived from stem cell research to treat a wider variety of diseases including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, and muscle damage, amongst a number of other impairments and conditions. However, there still exists a great deal of social and scientific uncertainty surrounding stem cell research, which could possibly be overcome through public debate and future research, and further education of the public.
One concern of treatment is the possible risk that transplanted stem cells could form tumors and have the possibility of becoming cancerous if cell division continues uncontrollably.
Stem cells, however, are already studied extensively. While some scientists are hesitant to associate the therapeutic potential of stem cells as the first goal of the research, they find the investigation of stem cells as a goal worthy in itself.
Contrarily, supporters of embryonic stem cell research argue that such research should be pursued because the resultant treatments could have significant medical potential. It is also noted that excess embryos created for in vitro fertilization could be donated with consent and used for the research.