What is a Stem Cell?
If the medical and scientific use of stem cells were allowed to reach its full potential, it could bring on a wave of treatments and cures for diseases and conditions that inhibit or end the lives of millions of people around the world. It is because of this that people should all have a good understanding of what stem cells are and what they can do for humankind, for in the end the use of stem cells in medicine and science could affect us all.
Stem cells are unspecialized cells, which means that they lack tissue specific structure. Cells such as blood, muscle or nerve cells all have specific structures that allow them to carry out specific tasks. For instance a blood cell knows that it has to get oxygen through the bloodstream because of the tissue specific structure contained within it. Because stem cells lack these tissue specific structures, they have the ability to give rise to blood, muscle and nerve cells through a process called differentiation. The process of differentiation happens when cells send different internal and external signals to each other when they need to carry out a specific job. For example, you've got two different kinds of ‘B cells' in your immune system. A certain number of B cells, the plasma cells, are responsible for actually fighting an infection. The rest are memory cells, which have the ability to remember an infection and recognize it should it come up again. The memory cells go on to use differentiation to tell the plasma cells what to do when an infection occurs. An understanding of this process within stem cells is only just beginning to surface.
Also, stem cells can divide and renew themselves for long periods of time. Stem cells are able to replicate themselves many times through a process called proliferation. If left in a lab for many months, a small, starting population of stem cells can grow in the millions. This is a trait that blood, muscle and nerve cells lack.
Because they are unspecialized, and because they can renew themselves over a long period of times, their use in medicine could be endless. Different diseases or conditions involving the degeneration of a certain part of the body, such as Parkinson disease which involves the degeneration of the neural cells in a certain part of the brain, could be altogether fixed with stem cells.
Many people have a problem with the continuation of stem cell research and its later use because of where they come from. Embryonic stem cells would be the most useful to doctors, as they have undergone no damage and would be most susceptible to changing into other kinds of cells. However, many people claim that this is disrespectful to the dead and is on par with experimenting with corpses.
The use of stem cells in medicine could amount to astronomical medical advances, and as the research along with the controversy surges on, we are guaranteed to see breakthroughs making headlines and the issue swaying elections in the future.
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