The search for further knowledge on the most basic unit of life, the cells, began since the discovery of that of microscopes in the 1800s. In 1868, German biologist Ernst Haeckel made use of the term stem cell to "describe the fertilized egg that becomes an organism" including those "single-celled organism that acted as the ancestor cell to all living things in history". Around early 1900's, Alexander Maximov, a Russian academic, addressed his theory of blood cells coming from the same ancestor cell". Leroy Stevens in 1953 found large tumors in the scrotums of mice for cancer research. Upon studying such, he was able find out that the cells were pluripotent or capable of differentiating "into any cell found in a fully grown animal". (Boston Children's Hospital, childrenhospital.org) Although it was only in the year 1963 that the existence of the stem cell was proved when the self-renewing activities of mouse bone marrow cells were recorded by Ernest A. McCulloch and James E. Till. (UK Stem Cell Foundation, ukscf.org)
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Much promise and potential can be derived from these researches conducted in a span of 2 centuries, yet according to MicrosoftÂ©EncartaÂ© (2009),
growing human stem cells in a laboratory remained an elusive goal until 1998. That year two research teams independently announced that they had isolated and grown human stem cells. The teams were led by biologists John Gearhart at Johns Hopkins University and James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Benefits of stem cell research
Like any other research being focused on by scientists, stem cell research has brought important contributions to mankind; making it a deep pool source of benefits, some known and others yet unknown. Two of the most important advantages of stem cell research are the advancement of knowledge on cells and its application in treatments for certain disorders and ailments.
Advancement of Knowledge on cells
Before the discovery of stem cells, it was believed that there are only two types of cells: somatic and germ cells. But now, the human body has new additional types to its make- up. What makes a stem cell an important discovery is its capability after cell division to become a "differentiated specialized cell" or to persist on being a stem cell, guaranteeing an unlimited source of stem cells.(Bongo, A. and Richards M., p.827)
As stated by the National Institutes of Health resource for stem cell research in the Stem Cell Basics primer, research on stem cells allow scientists to understand how a mature organism is developed from a single cell and how "healthy cells replace damaged cells" in the mature ones. (p.1). Commonly, diseases like cancer, birth defects and the like, known for its decapitating effects and lack of cure are likely to occur during the transformation of the cells to specialized ones. The research not only gives chance to a "better understanding" on the subject but it as well gives chance "to correct errors that cause these medical conditions".
In addition, in the year 1989, the first "knockout" mice were created by scientists Mario Capecchi, Martin Evan and Oliver Smithies. These mice were specially created such that each mouse shall be lacking a certain gene and thus act as a model of human diseases. With this, much understanding has been derived from countless diseases encountered by man such as diabetes and cancer. A study by Dominique Bonnet and John Dick uncovered how stem cells that cause leukemia, a type of cancer, are the same stem cells found in the human body which has only "gone off course". (Boston Children's Hospital, childrenhospital.org)
With a better
Application in treatments for certain disorders and ailments
Not only will stem cell research allow humankind a better understanding on the molecular level, it as well allows the "making of cells and tissues for medical therapies".
The National Institutes of Health "funded its first basic research study on hESCs (human Embryonic Stem Cells) in 2002". With the help of the technique improved by the group spearheaded by Dr. James Thomson on the isolation and growing of cells, the company ACT started two clinical trials: (1) testing the safety of hESC-derived retinal cells to treat patients with an eye disease calledÂ Stargardt's Macular Dystrophy (SMD) and (2) testing the safety of hESC-derived retinal cells to treat patients withÂ age-related macular degeneration (AMD). (The National Institutes of Health resource for stem cell research, stemcells.nih.gov)
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Adult stem research as were used in alleviating conditions of individuals with spinal cord injuries. An article in Brain 131 published how a study from September 2008 by Australian researchers documented modest improvement in a spinal cord injured patient using the patient's own adult nasal cells.(Mackay-Sim A et al. pp. 2376 - 2386).Additionally, a June 2006 clinical trial in Portugal involved 7 patients, all of whom enjoyed improvements to their condition after being treated with their own adult stem cells, including increased movement and sensation, with some patients regaining some voluntary muscle movement and some bladder function. (Lima C., et al. pp 191-203)
Neuralstem Inc., a biotechnology company is piloting a Phase I Clinical Trial entitled "Human Spinal Cord Derived Neural Stem Cell Transplantation for the Treatment of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)". This was first received on April 28, 2011 by the FDA and makes use of surgical implantation. It has an estimated enrollment of 18 patients and projected to be completed by February 2013. 12 participants have received lumbar transplants, and in March 2012, the second participant received an injection in the cervical region.Â (clinicaltrials.gov)
In the case of children with type 1 diabetes, the discovery of Pluripotent stem cells could be an answer to the scarcity of pancreas that is needed in order for human islet transplantation, a procedure which reinstates the insulin secretion function of the body, to take place. Also, the usage of such pancreas built form this type of stem cell reduces the risk of rejection of the receiver's body to the said newly-transplanted organ. (Chapman, Ph. D et. al, 1999)
Status of research
Though a vast number of discoveries were made and articles published, it has been only recently that scientists have understood stem cells well enough to consider the possibilities of growing them outside the body for long periods of time. "The combination of studies on adult and embryonic stem cells is advancing biomedicine."With that advance, rigorous experiments can be conducted, and the possibility of manipulating these cells in such a way that specific tissues can be grown is real. It is impossible to project when actual treatments or cures might emerge from such research, but the path this research might take and potential applications have been much discussed. But as Moore, et. al, 2006, states :
Currently there is relatively little commercial support for, or industry engagement in, stem cell research and development in Europe. A signiï¬cant inhibitory factor is the European Patent Office's interpretation of the morality clause in the European Biotechnology Directive (adopted into the European Patent Convention), which relates to the patentability of inventions dependent - at some point in their development - on the use of the human embryo. This is recognized as a serious impediment to obtaining full beneï¬t from stem cell research and development
In addition, in the study produced by the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Institute for Civil Society, a team of individuals, who are connoisseurs in their own fields and have varying assessments towards the topic, was tasked to study and to recommend at the end of the time period ideal actions in the whole operation process of stem cell research. Two of its most important recommendations are (1) the importance of informing the public of the issues raised by the said research and its usage and (2) how the federal funding as well as regulation are important in order to explore the enormous potentials this research can benefit mankind. (Chapman, Ph. D et. al, 1999)
In sum, in order for the quest for furthering the knowledge on cells and understanding the potential clinical applications of stem cell research to continue, it is critical to understand the research that is taking place now. (Moore, et. al, 2006)
Chapman, Audrey, Ph. D., et. al. (1999) Stem Cell Research and Applications: Monitoring the Frontiers of Biomedical Research. American Institute for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved from http://www.aaas.org/spp/sfrl/projects/stem/report.pdf.