We now have the opportunity to save and improve lives through medical advancements with stem cells. If you can put aside religious views and look at the benefits available, you may understand why stem cell research is so important.
Though scientists have known about stem cells since the early 1900s, it wasn't until the 1960s that stem cells' regenerative capabilities were observed. In 1998, a watershed moment occurred when scientist James Thomson successfully removed stem cells from unwanted embryos at a fertility clinic and harvested its cells in a laboratory. With that moment, stem cell research gathered speed.
Stem cells have undifferentiated functions. That is, they have the potential to become any type of cell in the human body, through genetic engineering. A patient may have diseased tissue in some part of his body that could benefit from healthy tissue in another part of his body. For instance, a doctor treating a patient with damaged liver cells could take stem cells from healthy facial tissue and engineer them so they become healthy liver cells.
Though no embryonic stem cells have yet undergone clinical trials---due to the ethical backlash against extracting cells from living embryos---adult stem cells are widely in use. There are very few stem-cell surgeries, but animal trials using stem cells have been largely successful. Though the technology remains imperfect, more scientists are participating in stem cell research to realize its life-saving potential.
Stem cells can be engineered to replicate various specialized cells---those in the brain, liver and skin---and have the potential to treat vast numbers of illnesses. There is a strong likelihood that stem cells can generate healthy organs in a laboratory, to be transplanted into people needing them.
Stem cell research is especially exciting because it gives new hope to people who have terminal or incurable conditions. For instance, while Parkinson's patients take drugs that slow or lessen their symptoms, the drugs are incapable of curing the diseased tissue in the brain. This is where stem cell research comes in, because it has the capability to generate disease-free tissue. Parkinson's is just one of many diseases poised to benefit from stem cell treatment.
Most misconceptions revolving around stem cell research are ethical in nature. Many people are against embryonic stem cell use because extracting stem cells from an embryo destroys it.
One major misconception about the research is that stem cells only come from embryonic cells. In fact, most stem cells today come from adult stem cells. Furthermore, some adult cells may be more helpful in treating certain conditions than embryonic stem cells.
Many people also state that stem cells are the only possible route of treatment for terminal diseases. In fact, drug treatment is still a dynamic area of new treatments. For instance, estrogen replacement therapy for menopausal women is showing promise for Alzheimer's disease prevention.
Though stem cells can be harvested into specialized cells, there are pending theories about how stem cells may relieve inflammation. One theory goes that patients suffering from inflammation will not be effectively treated with stem cell therapy, because inflammation interferes with stem cell functions. For instance, stem cells used for a patient who has a brain tumor but also experiences inflammation may receive "mixed messages" as to where to repair the body.
Many countries have called for "bioethics" councils as part of their federal governments to debate the ethical repercussions of embryonic stem cell research.
However, stem cell research may also mean that people who are on long waiting lists for transplants will no longer have to wait, because they can receive a new organ grown from their own cells. This self-growth also means that the body will likely "accept" the organ as its own, which is not the case for many transplanted organs. Moreover, people who are paralyzed and undergoing treatment for cellular diseases such as cancer have much to anticipate from stem cell research.