"Visions of World Benefit & Global Responsibility: Perspectives of McGill Students

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Stem Cells

One of the latest and most exciting developments in modern medicine is stem cell research. This development in the near future may help us treat many conditions that are incurable today. Stem cells are a special kind of cell found in human embryos and in some parts of the body. When a human egg is fertilized by a sperm; it divides rapidly, creating more and more cells. They are all the same cells, called stem cells. Some areas of the body are able to repair themselves by producing more cells. These are called adult stem cells.
Human stem cells were first grown in a laboratory in 1998 by two U.S. researchers working separately, James Thomson and John Gearhart. Both believed that stem cells could help provide new cures for disease. The first stage in developing treatments was making a supply of stem cells, something no one had managed to do before. Thomson’s breakthrough came when he used a new culture medium to feed the cells. The simple changes finally made it possible to grow stem cells outside the body. The first work on embryonic stem cells was carried out on mice. The way stem cells work is, it comes from a spare fertilized human egg left over from fertility treatments, or from aborted foetuses. They can also be created specially by fertilizing an egg or making a clone. Thirty stem cells can produce millions more over a few months. Many people disapprove of these methods because of ethical or religious issues. Adult stem cells are taken from healthy, living donors. Therefore there is less debate over this.
Currently in the medical profession adult stem cells have been used as treatment, for example bone marrow transplantation is a successful way to treat cancer. However, for diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, heart disease, and many others, the problem occurs since the cells are damaged or missing therefore are unable to be filled by the adult stem cells. For example, an injured spinal cord does not heal itself by re-growing tissue. Therefore, scientists have started experimenting ways in which adult stem cells can replace missing cells. Stem cell research has strong support by many notable groups including the American Medical Association and the National Health Council.
Stem cell research has greatly developed over the years. Scientists can already use stem cells from within bones to cure blood disorders, and researchers are exploring many more treatments using stem cells. One hope is that stem cells could help victims of Parkinson’s disease, in which nerve and brain cells are damaged. The stem cells would be used to grow nerve and brain tissue.


The ethics and Science of Stem Cells. Paul Szabo, M.P. Mississauga South. January 2002. Canadian Institute of Health Research

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