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Stem Cell Research Information

Overview

Stem cells have two main properties; that they are pluripotent (that is, able to become many different types of mature cell) and that they are self-renewing; i.e. able to divide. In the last 40 years, stem cell research has formed an exciting new avenue for treatment for many different types of disease, from leukaemia to cystic fibrosis.
 

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Controversy

Much controversy surrounds the use of human embryonic stem cells in research, mainly over the origin of the stem cells. Currently the use of human embryonic stem cells requires the destruction of an embryo, or therapeutic cloning. There has been much discussion over whether the destruction of an embryo at a four or five cell stage can be considered taking a human life; often this is reduced to a debate between scientific and religious or spiritual ethical views. Government funding supporting human embryonic stem cell research varies enormously between countries, normally as a reflection of the activity of anti-stem cell research protestation, or of the influence of religion within the country.

Changing policy in the US

The first time that the NIH (National Institutes of Health) was able to directly fund human embryonic research was in 1993, when Bill Clinton oversaw the signing in of the National Institutes of Health Revitalisation Act. In 1995, Bill Clinton also signed in the Dickey Amendment, which prevented the use of state-allocated funds for research involving either the creation or destruction of human embryos. However, in 1999 it was established that while under the Dickey Amendment destruction or creation of human embryos, funded by federal money, was not permitted, use of human embryonic stem cells did not constitute the use of a human embryo under statutory definitions of 'human'. This allowed the use of federal funds to back research using human embryonic stem cells for the first time, and was endorsed by Bill Clinton.

Events in stem cell research

The term stem cell, and the idea of the existence of pluripotent cells within the mature human body were first proposed by Maksimov in 1908, in the context of bone marrow stem cells, responsible for producing red and white blood cells. This theory was finally supported by McCulloch and Till in 1963, when they demonstrated the existence of bone marrow stem cells (haematopoietic cells) in the mouse; this lead to the first successful bone marrow transplant in 1968.

Through research by Martin et al., the first embryonic stem cells were isolated from a mouse in 1981; Martin coined the term 'embryonic stem cell'. In 1998, James Thomson created the first human embryonic stem cell line at the
University of Wisconsin, prompting the examination of the Dickey Amendment to find that the amendment did not apply to human embryonic stem cell lines.

Later, in 2006, researchers at
Newcastle University in England produced the first artificial liver cells using umbilical cord stem cells. Research was now beginning into methods of generating stem cells that did not require the creation or destruction of a human embryo. In 2008, Lanza et al. generated the first human embryonic stem cells without the destruction of a human embryo. Clinical trials in March 2008 showed the first successful regeneration of cartilage within the human knee from mesenchymal stem cells.


The future of stem cell research

There is a vast multitude of potential beneficial uses for stem cells. They could be used to test the safety and efficacy of new drugs, without the need for human and potentially animal trials, such as new drugs to treat cancer. They can be used to research normal controls for cell growth and differentiation, which may lead to a better understanding of disease in which these processes have been altered.

Stem cells may be used to generate new organs to replace failing tissues in cell-based therapies. Currently the need for donor organs far outweighs the supply, and this could be rectified through the production and use of stem cell organs. There is the possibility that they may be used to treat degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's Disease or Parkinson's Disease, or chronic heart diseases, diabetes and osteoarthritis. It will still be many years before these treatments could be available to patients, but these astounding scientific breakthroughs have indicated that there may yet be hope for individuals with a wide range of previously incurable diseases.

 

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