There continues to be a distribution of massive misinformation being made throughout our culture about stem cell research. One part of the misinformation has been rooted in the fact that many people have tried to tie stem cell research into the abortion issue. It is true that there have been some research projects that were created around embryonic stem cells from aborted babies, but between politics, ethical concerns, and complications in the research this has not been where the most productive research has been taking place. Stem cells are a good thing, and may offer wonderful help in the battle against cancer, Parkinson's, diabetes and any number of other chronic health problems that humans face. It is important to be informed about this new tool of medicine, and not allow it to become a political or religious issue to the detriment of all of mankind.
Stem cells are primal cells found in all multi-cellular organisms that are able to reproduce and can differentiate into various specialized cell types. This is a fairly new science which began in the early 1960s. There are three broad categories of stem cells. They are: (1) Embryonic stem cells, which are taken from an early stage embryo of approximately four to five days old and consists of 50 to 150 cells. These stem cells can develop into each of more than 200 cells types of the adult body when given sufficient stimulation. (2) Adult stem cells, which are found throughout the body that normally reproduce to replenish dying cells and regenerate damaged tissues. (3) Cord blood stem cells found in the umbilical cord and are able to differentiate into all of the specialized embryonic tissues.
To understand why stem cells are so useful, we might consider the repairs on a car as an analogy. If your car is overheating, what is likely to be the cause? Common sense tells you that the electrical system or the motor itself are not the probable villains. It is obviously the cooling system that has a problem, and there are only a few components that make up the cooling system. A quick check could tell you if you have enough fluid in the cooling system, and if so, a blockage or a dysfunctional water pump would be the likely culprit. It is relatively easy to determine if there is a blockage so if there is not, the mechanic would be likely to replace the water pump.
Many human diseases can be treated in much the same way. If a person is diabetic and his blood sugar is very high, it is not likely that the problem is being caused by the heart or the lungs. We all know that an organ called the pancreas secretes a substance called insulin that allows the sugars in our food to be processed. If there is not enough insulin, our blood sugar will be too high and that has numerous side effects on the individual. We now know that in the pancreas there are cells grouped into what are called the "islets of Langerhans" and each islet contains approximately 1000 cells. These cells are grouped into four groups. Sixty-five to eighty percent are beta cells which produce Insulin and Amylin, 15 to 20 percent are alpha cells which release Glugagon an activating agent, 3 to 10 percent are delta cells that produce Somatostatin, an inhibiting agent, and 1 percent are PP cells which contain a polypeptide. All of this tells us that the design of the human digestive system is incredibly complex. How do you fix it when something is wrong?
In the case of the car, someone has to have carefully built a water pump that will do what the original equipment was designed to do. That means that the original blueprint has to be understood, and all parts have to be carefully put together in the same way that the original equipment was produced. To fix diabetes, the same process has to be used. In type 1 diabetes in which insulin shots are required, the islets of Langerhans have been destroyed. If we can develop stem cells that will turn into islets of Langerhans and can inject them into the pancreas of the diabetic we will have replaced what is missing with an identical component. Science is very close to accomplishing this from adult stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells are not the answer to this type of research. Embryonic cells can become anything, which is why people have had an interest in them, but this is also a major problem. Embryonic cells can be misled by biochemical signals when they are transplanted into an adult, leading to unwanted cell types and sometimes to tumor formation.
Three researchers at the University of Missouri have been able to sustain adult stem cells and induce them to turn into specific cell types by exposing them to different chemical signals. No abnormal tissue results from this type of stem cell work. Elmer Price, Randall Prather, and Mike Foley at the University of Missouri have taken the lead in this research. Price says, "In theory, embryonic stem cells have the ability to become almost any cell type or organ. Very complex chemical signals need to be in place with embryonic stem cells in order for them to develop into the appropriate type of cell. However, we have shown that if you can isolate adult stem cells, you can make them generate the appropriate type of cell with much more ease and specificity."
Remember that blood-derived adult stem cells are normally used by the body for regeneration and repair, and by copying what God has designed for the maintenance of the human body, some wonderful solutions to the afflictions humans endure are possible. Stem cell research is a good thing, and as we learn more about this part of our body's makeup we have to understand even more fully David's description of what God has done in forming us from the dust of the earth: "I will praise thee Lord, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14).
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