Stem Cell Research
Stem cell research is a buzzword which gets a lot of attention, especially around the time of political elections. Some people think it's used as a ploy for politicians jockeying for position. Other people cling to the hope attached to stem cell research, as they imagine a cure for the disease they live with, or a cure that would assure that their future grandchildren will never experience the same pain they have lived with. You can see how easily stem cell research becomes an emotional issue. People approach stem cell research as a political issue, religious issue, or quality of life issue. Regardless of how you approach it, you should fully understand it.
Stem Cell Transplants — The Cure?
Stem cell transplants have been studied in the United States, Europe, and Australia as a potentially promising treatment for lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and scleroderma. While stem cell transplants are promising for some patients, the treatment is not for every patient.
During a stem cell transplant, bone marrow is removed from the arthritis patient or from a healthy donor. When the bone marrow is removed from the patient with arthritis, it is called an autologous stem cell transplant. Bone marrow cells are removed from the bone marrow that was extracted. Stem cells are left which can grow and develop. At this point, the patient undergoes high-dose chemotherapy or radiation to rid cells from the bone marrow still in the body. When that step is complete, the purified stem cells from the bone marrow extraction are injected back into the body, where the intention is that they will repopulate the bone marrow with healthy cells and ultimately lead the patient to remission.
The stem cell transplantation procedure is not for everyone. It has risks, since it suppresses the immune system significantly. The procedure is reserved for patients who have failed all other standard therapies and those with life-threatening conditions.
Due to the risks involved, 5 to 15 percent of all stem cell transplants result in death. Rheumatologists and researchers agree that long-term followup needs to take place before stem cell transplantation is considered a cure for arthritis. Some transplant recipients had a recurrence of the disease, though it came back milder.
Why the Debate over Stem Cell Research?
In an autologous stem cell transplant, which was just described, the stem cells are your own. With stem cell research, the source of stem cell lines is what is disputed. Let's review the terminology:
Stem cells are unique from other cells of the body.
Stem cells are unspecialized cells capable of renewing and dividing themselves.
Though stem cells are unspecialized, they can develop into specialized cells.
Embryonic stem cells are derived from eggs fertilized only in vitro and donated for research through informed consent.
Adult stem cells are undifferentiated in a specific tissue or organ. They can renew themselves, and can differentiate into specialized cells of the tissue or organ.
Adult stem cells are said to be less versatile than embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells can become all types of cells in the body. Adult stem cells are limited to their tissue or origin.
Research on embryonic stem cells could lead scientists to understand how undifferentiated stem cells become differentiated. Supporters of embryonic stem cell research hope it will lead to cures for many diseases, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and many others. Learn more about stem cell research at the NIH Web site devoted to it (