The Pros And Cons Of Adult Stem Cells

Published: 01st June 2009
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Years ago, scientists became intensely interested in the inner-workings of embryonic stem cells. At just three to five days old, this mass of protean cells were a blank canvas, yet under normal circumstances, these cells would develop into tissues, organs and more than 200 other body parts.

Early animal and human stem cell research focused on cells taken from extra embryos frozen at in vitro fertilization labs. More recently, it's been discovered that adult stem cells can also be versatile under the right circumstances.

There are some advantages to using adult stem cells over embryo-derived stem cells. For one, adult cells are easier to harvest, as they can come from skin, muscle, bone marrow and fat. Often those treated with their own stem cells will not suffer immune system rejection.

It's also easier to encourage these already specialized cells to differentiate the way the scientists want them to, which is impressive considering they're still not 100% sure what causes a cell to become a certain organ or tissue. Lastly, donated adult stemcells clear up the stem cell controversy surrounding the destruction of human embryos in the name of science.

Mice are not people. We know this. Even so, it's hard not be excited that the first mouse has successfully regrown muscles and regenerated damaged tissue thanks to adult stem cells.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales say the mice were given a gene making them resistant to chemotherapy, which clears out damaged cells and encourages new stem cells to take hold. "What has been the realm of science fiction is looking more and more like the medicine of the future," said Peter Gunning, one of the study's co-authors.

What moral grounds are scientists subject to adhere to? This is one of the controversies surrounding adult stem cells. Once techniques for creating a new stem cell are in place, who's to say the scientist won't fall naturally into therapeutic cloning or even human cloning?

If a human can regrow a limb like a salamander, will there be some so curious as to create a human-animal hybrid? Is there a danger in manipulating germs, diseases and mutagens in Petri dishes that could lead to more resistant strains? Will researchers exercise enough patience to ensure the long-term safety of their products containing human stem cells? Can our earth sustain a population that can live even longer and regenerate? To what extent are we playing God?

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