Stem cell science continues to move forward, holding great promise for treating conditions of the blood as well as many life-threatening and fatal diseases.
All over the world, scientists and researchers are trying to learn more about stem cells, how they work, and how they can be harnessed for both the diagnosis and treatment of human conditions. For decades, doctors have already successfully been performing bone marrow stem cell transplants. Other stem cell treatments are currently being tested on animal models, while some have already been brought to clinical trials.
Clearance for the very first clinical trial of an embryonic stem cell-based therapy for patients with acute spinal cord injurywas granted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2009. Similarly, FDA approval was granted in 2010 to conduct a Phase I clinical trial of a neural stem cell treatment for stroke (care of the British company ReNeuron). Since then, hundreds of stem cell phase III clinical trials have been registered.
But where did it all begin and how far has science really come in actualizing the intense optimism stem cells have generated? Of course, it is the self-renewal capacities of stem cells that have excited medical researchers, as well as their ability to give rise to new generations with variable degrees of differentiation. This bodes well for the potential of tissue generation to replace damaged and diseased parts of the body with minimal side effects and risk of rejection.
While most stem cell therapies are only in their experimental stages – with the exception of bone marrow transplantation – researchers anticipate that stem cell science will one day be able to treat a wide range of conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, cancer, type I diabetes, celiac disease, neurological disorders, muscle damage, and more.
The Debate and Controversy
Nevertheless, in spite of the great promise stem cell research holds, a raging debate over the ethics of stem cell therapy has been brewing ever since 1998, when scientists discovered how to remove stem cells from a human embryo. At the center of the heated controversy are human embryonic stem (hES) cells, which are isolated from an embryo. Opposition centers on the moral implications of destroying a human embryo, bringing to the forefront ethical questions such as: When does human life begin (in the womb, at birth, at fertilization)?
Is a human embryo actually a human child and does an embryo have any rights? And on the flip side: Is there not justification in destroying a single embryo if it yields a cure for countless sick individuals? Likewise, since the embryonic cells continue to grow in a dish, is the embryo really destroyed? This same debate has made its way into the political echelons, as well, where political leaders continue to argue over how to regulate and fund human embryonic stem (hES) cell research.
Fortunately, breakthroughs in the field involving induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are made from adult cells, are opening up new possibilities in stem cell research and treatments, with the potential to reduce the need for the use of human embryos. Yet iPS and hES cells are not exactly the same, human embryos are still needed for research purposes, and iPS cells open up yet another Pandora’s box – namely, the ethical problem of producing human clones.
The Bottom Line
On a government level, leaders all over the globe are passing legislation aimed at regulating stem cell research – with most prohibiting the creation of embryos exclusively for research purposes. Also on the table are arguments over whether taxpayer money should be used to fund the controversial research and how much backing the government should provide to encourage the advancement in science and medicine on one hand while honoring the respect for life on the other.
On a scientific level, more research is needed to understand stem cell behavior, to discover the mechanisms by which stem cells interact with the diseased or injured areas after transplant, and how stem cell therapies can effectively be applied in clinical settings.
Stem Cell Therapy and biotechnology come hand in hand and biotech scientists carry the hope of discovering how to use stem cells to create new tissue that can be transplanted to any living human being. Hope is indeed around the corner; however, collaboration is key in order to fasten the potential cure of all major mortal diseases. Many studies are underway and this year, the most renowned biotech and pharmaceutical companies will be discussing about stem cell research and more at the International Biotechnology Conference in Israel, the epicenter of life and science studies and technology.
Application is now open for local and international participants. Early bird registration ends in May.
Zack Fisher helps people understand and leverage biotechnology and its impact on society. He is a freelance writer and is currently a research fellow in biomedical sciences at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. He is writing on behalf of the organizing team behind the IATI- Biomed Conference in Israel.