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Stem Cells: Research, Implications for Medicine and Legal Sanction

Updated on September 19, 2014

Stem cells have remained in news ever since the inception of the concept; be it for controversies revolving around their legality, or their projection has a groundbreaking evolution perceived to transform the face of medicine. Many a celebrity hoping on the pro-stem cell research bandwagon was seen to lend impetus to the phenomenon. However, the true potential of stem cells in medicine and therapy is often lost in this noise.

What are Stem Cells?

Stem cells are unique body cells that have the ability to penetrate and grow into other body cells, beside self-regeneration properties. The self-regeneration means the stem cells have the ability to produce more stem cells with corresponding properties. Contrary to popular perception that stem cells are found in early embryo alone, these are present in the human body during its entire life span.

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Different Types and Their Uses

Depending on their origin and usability, stem cells are broadly divided into three categories:

  • Embryonic Stem Cells: These are developed in laboratories using cells from embryos in their early stages. These are storehouses of unlimited potential for developing specialized cells that can offer groundbreaking therapies as a solution to some dreaded medical conditions. However, there are ethical concerns over use of cells from the embryo for research; and so there use is still limited to the clinical trials.

  • Reprogrammed stem cells: As the name suggests, adult cells are tweaked or reprogrammed to perform like embryonic cells. Also known as iPSC (induced pluripotent stem cells), these are believed to have great potential in offering an understanding of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or Down syndrome.

  • Tissue stem cells: These stem cells are an extension of body’s natural process repair and replace body tissues from time to time. The use of blood and skin stem cells can be commonly seen in form of bone marrow transplants for patients of blood disorders and skin transplants, most commonly used on third degree burn victims. The cord blood stem cells are an extremely viable method of treating genetic and life-threatening disorders.

These stem cells are taken from the umbilical cord after child birth and preserved in laboratories, and can be retrieved at any time to treat medical conditions such as leukemia or Fanconi anaemia. Mesenchymal stem cells are the most recent discovery in the field of stem cell research. Though their usability is yet to be proven, these are believed to be an effective means for cartilage and bone repair.

Celebrity Crusade

A lot of stem cell popularity emerges from celebrities resorting to cord blood stem cell reservation of their newborns or donating funds for stem cell research. Christopher Reeve of the Superman fame set up a foundation to support stem cell research after suffering a near fatal horse-riding mishap. Good Morning America’s famous anchor Robin Roberts underwent an allogenic stem cell transplant, where stem cells from a donor were used to treat her myelodysplastic syndrome. The former first lady Nancy Reagan turned into a strong proponent of stem cell research after her husband was detected with Alzheimer’s. Foundation run by Micheal J Fox donated a whopping $205 million for stem cell research to fight Parkinson’s.

Legal Status

There are divergent views on the ethical facets of stem cell research that are often echoed in laws governing the research. There are, however, no defined federal laws in the US that on stem cell research; and the matter is often subject to state laws. By and large, there are restrains on embryonic stem cell research in a majority of states, irrespective of the source of embryo.

© 2013 Juana


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