The use of stem cell in medical treatments and therapies has its benefits and risks. Many of us may have heard of different stem cell treatments in the news. Most of us don’t understand the hype. We are all curious about it because of its potential benefits to addressing major health concerns. Stem cells have great potential in the treatment of various diseases but it also poses certain risks. This field of medicine has also raised many social and ethical concerns.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are the body’s raw materials. Embryonic stem cells are the cells that divide to form the different types of cells (e.g., heart cells, muscle cells, brain cells, etc.) in our bodies. Some stem cells remain in the bodies of adults. These are stem cells that have already specialised into the different types of cells in the body.
Embryonic Stem Cells
Embryonic stem cells come from eggs that were fertilized at in vitro fertilization (IVF) clinics; but never implanted into a woman’s uterus. They are taken from the embryo before birth.
When an embryo is formed; the cells in its early stages of development are stem cells that are undifferentiated. These cells still have the potential to become specialised cells later on. Embryonic stem cells can also be taken from amniotic fluid; and by collecting blood from the umbilical cord when a person is born.
Adult Stem Cells
Stem cells taken from adults are already specialised so they have limited application in medical treatments. If the medical condition concerns a patient’s heart; then only stem cells from the heart can be used in the treatment.
There are also therapeutically-cloned stem cells. This involve using a person’s DNA to clone one of their organs (such as the heart) for use in transplanting a new heart for the patient.
Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells
In this method, scientists alter adult stem cells so they act like an embryonic stem cell. In this way, adult stem cells which are already specialised, can be reprogrammed into other types of body cells (e.g., heart cells can be reprogrammed into lung cells, etc.) eliminating the need for using embryonic cells. This area of research is still undergoing further studies.
The hype around stem cell therapies is largely due to its potential in treating various medical conditions. The study of stem cells can help medical researchers and doctors in many ways.
Understand how diseases develop.
Scientists can monitor the development of stem cells into specialised cells. This can provide better understanding of how diseases develop and under what conditions they occur. It can also give clues on how to prevent and treat diseases.
Stem cells can be programmed to form different specialised cells to regenerate diseased tissue or repair damaged tissues. For example, stem cells can be used in heart transplants without having to wait for a heart donor.
Testing new treatments.
Testing the safety and effectiveness of new medical treatments is a long process. The process also poses a lot of risks for the individuals who participate in the testing. Instead, researchers can use different types of stem cells to test for safety and efficacy. A new drug for treating a nerve disease can be tested on stem cells specialised or programmed as nerve cells.
Although stem cell therapies look promising; being misinformed or uninformed of their potential risks is dangerous. The stem cell field is still developing. Most stem cell therapies can be labeled as under the research and testing phase. There are also many issues and controversial concerns that add to the hype on this topic.
There are no guarantees as to the success of new stem cell therapies. Most of these therapies are still experiments and do not have established methods or guaranteed results. Aside from this, it is also difficult to find suitable stem cell donors for different patients.
Storing a patient’s embryonic stem cells is also a difficult process. Stem cells stored and cultured have the potential to mutate and cause them to behave like cancer cells. This will make them useless for medical treatment. Cultured stem cells may also get contaminated with viruses which could be transferred to the patient.
Embryonic stem cells come from IVF embryos not implanted in a woman’s uterus. This raises ethical concerns. One question is whether it is right to create embryos for therapy and destroy them in the process. Is it right to view embryos as commodities instead of a potential human being? There is also the question of when does an embryo become treated as a person; and not just a source of stem cells.
Educating the public about stem cells, its potentials and risks are a major concern in the field. Commercial clinics carry out most of the research in this field. Therefore, the medical community cannot validate their results. Thus, they can abuse the results of their research. They can fool patients into paying for expensive treatments that claim desirable results.
Be safe and informed
As mentioned above, stem cell treatments has its benefits and risks. As the field of stem cell research is quite new; it is safer not to rush into any treatments that claim to treat or cure certain medical conditions. Luckily, different countries have imposed stringent regulations governing this field of research. This should help you decide if you are ready to take on stem cell therapy and its benefits as well as handle the risks involved.
If you are looking into stem cell treatment offered in different countries; it is best to consult the regulations they have in that country. If you feel that the regulations are not reliable, then it is better to look somewhere else.
Still, prevention is better than cure. A well-balanced life, an attitude of gratitude, a positive mindset, having fun, loving oneself, and not taking life too seriously are just some of the best ways to keep ourselves healthy and happy.