Q: What are stem cells and what makes them so special?
A: Stem cells have the unique ability to convert themselves into a variety of other types of cells in the body. In some parts of the body, they even function as a type of internal healing system. Since stem cells also have the unique capability to multiply virtually without limit, stem cells will do their job so long as the organism they are present in is alive. They truly are an extraordinary component of the body. While there are various types of stem cells, healing is their primary function.
Q: What can stem cells be used for in the medical field?
A: There are a variety of ways that stem cells can be used for modern medicine. Gaining a better understanding of the exact functions of stem cells can give scientists a better understanding of how the enigmatic process of human development works. In gaining understanding, it can help scientists to develop new treatments or preventative measures for certain developmental conditions and disorders. Some of the primary issues being focused on are cancer and birth defects.
Stem cells are also being used at this time to test new drugs. This allows researchers to safely test new treatments in a way that foregoes animal testing and is a far more humane approach. Additionally, it is far easier to control the standards when using stem cells as opposed to animals, as the varying receptors in animals compared to humans can cause the reactions to vary between species.
The potential that seems to be the most vital is the generation of various tissues and cells. Called cell-based therapies, these types of therapies hope to eventually forego the need for a variety of transplants. Cell-based therapies avoid many of the complications of transplants, such as rejection of the foreign tissue/organ, and the basic lack of supply compared to the needs of the population as a whole. This type of therapy aspires to offer better alternatives for treatment of various forms of arthritis, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, stroke, various forms of heart disease, macular degeneration, and much more.
Q: What are the obstacles that need to be overcome?
A: While stem cells offer an amazing potential, there are several obstacles that hold stem cell therapy back. One is an issue of how stem cells are acquired. Being that there are several types of stem cells and some are obtained from embryos, some feel this is inhumane and should be illegal. This moral dilemma limits the research done on specific types of stem cells obtained only by the embryos.
Another obstacle is that scientists still do not fully understand the process of reproduction that stem cells undergo. While it is easy to replicate unspecialized stem cells in a laboratory, creating batches of specific types of desired stem cells has proven to be far more elusive. Researchers are still looking to unravel the mystery of how to produce large quantities of specific types of stem cells. As the research continues and the mystery unravels, we will find more and more treatments being offered by medical professionals that utilize the amazing ability of stem cells.
While stem cells definitely seem to be solidifying themselves as the next big thing in medicine and their ability to adapt makes them invaluable to the medical world, there are still many things to research to unlock the full potential of stem cells. From tissue regeneration and organ repair, stem cells have a bright future.