Stem cell therapy is an important topic for health professionals and for patients with degenerative conditions. It’s also occasionally a topic of political debate. Some basic questions concerning the therapy are answered below.
1. What is stem cell therapy and why is it important?
Stem cells are “blank slate” cells that can, under the right conditions, become other, specialized cells, such as muscle, bone, organ or nerve cells. This means that they may be capable of regenerating damaged tissues in the human body, making it an applicable treatment method for a variety of health conditions and diseases, including: degenerative disc disease; osteoarthritis; spinal cord injury; motor neuron disease; macular degeneration; Parkinson’s; ALS; heart disease and more. The therapy may be capable of treating conditions for which there is currently no effective option.
2. Is the use of embryonic cells legal?
Yes. However, federal funding is only granted for research conducted under strict guidelines. Conducting research beyond the bounds of these guidelines can still be legal, but must be done under private or state funding, which is harder to come by.
In 2009, President Obama tried to loosen restrictions on research into embryonic cells, but his efforts did not succeed. The law dictates that no research involving the creation of new stem cell lines can be funded federally. A cell line is created when cells are extracted from a young embryo, which is left over from the in vitro fertilization process and donated to science by a consenting donor, and the cells multiply and divide. Once cells are extracted from the embryo, the embryo is destroyed. This is the main reason opponents argue against this form of research. Researchers can only receive federal funding on studies using the limited number of already-existing embryonic cell lines.
3. How do proponents respond to criticisms of embryonic stem cell research?
Many proponents say that the destruction of the embryo after cells have been extracted is not unethical, since the embryo would have been destroyed anyway after the donor no longer needed it for reproductive purposes. Actually, donors have three options: 1) destroy the remaining embryos; 2) donate to an adopting woman; or 3) donate to science. Women who don’t want to donate to another woman will either donate to research, resulting in the eventual destruction of the embryos, or opt to have them destroyed immediately.
4. What other kinds of stem cell research/therapy are there?
There are forms of stem cell therapy that don’t require embryonic cells. Stem cells can be found in the bone marrow, blood and umbilical cords of adults; normal cells can also be reverse-engineered to have limited stem cell capabilities.
5. If embryonic stem cell research is controversial, why not go with cells derived from adults?
Stem cells from adults have a more limited ability to become other cells in the body than embryonic cells. Adult cells aren’t reliable for the creation of new motor neurons, for example, though they may successfully replace spinal disc, muscle, cartilage or bone tissue.
6. Are there any risks associated with this form of therapy?
So far, there haven’t been many human studies into this form of treatment. One concern, though, is that it can increase the patient’s risk of cancer. Cancer is caused by cells that rapidly multiply and don’t self-destruct normally when something is wrong. Stem cells are added to growth factors that encourage rapid multiplication before transplanted into patients, and they tend to die less quickly than other cells. Tumor growth, both benign and malignant, can result.
In 2012, researchers (Gadue et al) tested a method of developing mouse embryonic cells that involved stalling their development before the endodermal stage; this resulted in cells that did not form tumors later on, but that also had limited ability to become other kinds of cells. More research into tumor growth prevention is needed.
For more on this form of therapy from the National Institutes of Health, visit http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/pages/faqs.aspx.