Mention stem cells, and the controversial topic of embryonic stem cell research comes to mind.
It’s therefore crucial to underline that the stem cell therapy used for regenerative medicine is adult stem cell therapy.
It is not the subject of any ethical controversy, since in this kind of therapy the stem cells are taken directly from the patient themselves. Adult stem cell therapy is in fact a separate area of research from embryonic stem cells.
What Are Stem Cells?
As one might guess form the name, all of the 300+ types of human cells “stem” from special, more primitive and undifferentiated cells. These cells are the precursors of the specialized cells making up our blood, bones, brain cells, muscles, heart cells, organs, skin, and the like.
Stem cells come in two types: adult, and embryonic.
Adult stem cells, as used in regenerative therapies, are present in a number of types of tissue long after birth — for example, the bones, brain, intestine, kidneys, liver, skin, muscle, nervous system, and pancreas. These cells are designed to help repair and replace injured tissue.
Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are present in the newly fertilized egg inside 5 days after fertilization. They’re present before the egg has been implanted into the uterus wall. The stem cells are about the size of a grain of sugar, and the “ball” of stem cells is known as the blastocyte.
Why Is There A Controversy?
For a long time, scientists believed adult stem cells were less capable than they actually are, and as a result focused on researching embryonic stem cells.
In order to get embryonic stem cells, they’re usually taken from the left-over fertilized eggs which result from the in vitro fertilization process. (Couples using in-vitro fertilization, where the fertilization is done outside the body, will have multiple eggs and sperm fertilized.
This is to ensure implanting them back into the woman will ‘take.’) Around 50-60% of the resulting embryos are not considered viable.
Since the Catholic Church believes life starts at conception, the Church strongly disagrees with making any use of the resulting ball of cells. The fact that the cells could become human if they were implanted means that, in Church doctrine, they have the same status as a fetus.
No use of the fertilized eggs for any reason except re-implanting them is permitted. Other Christian sects and religions have adopted this position also.
Why Not Use Adult Stem Cells in Research?
Since adult stem cells — the types used by Regenerative Medicine Specialists in stem cell therapy — do not have any ethical or religious concerns associated with them, it would seem logical to avoid the controversial embryonic type entirely. However, for a long time adult stem cells were thought to be less capable than they are. Only recently has it been shown that adult stem cells are able to change into other types of cells than the tissue from which they were taken, for example.
While embryonic stem cells still have some benefits for scientists working in the lab, much research is now shifting to adult stem cells.
How Does This Impact Stem Cell Treatment?
Now that scientists have been able to reverse adult stem cells from particular tissues into many different cell types, the door has been opened to making adult stem cell therapy even more powerful and versatile than before.
At no point is there any involvement of the controversial embryonic stem cells. Instead, research is underway to use the non-controversial adult stem cell therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, deafness, and even baldness.