By Steven Falconi
When stem cell research emerges in conversation, it inevitably creates controversy. Some view it as if stem cells were conjured up by Emily Brontё or Bram Stoker for some frightening science-fiction tale. Others in the scientific and medical communities describe its potential to cure a who’s who of chronic and terminal conditions. The controversy casts a pallor over the whole field of stem cell research, but not all stem cells are created equal – a new sub-field, adult stem cells, could provide the benefits of embryonic stem cells but sidestep the ethical debate.
Nearly half a million Americans suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a horrific neurological condition characterized by tremors, delayed motion, loss of automatic movement, muscle rigidity, and dementia. While there are many pharmaceutical treatments for Parkinson symptoms, there is no cure for the degeneration. Parkinson’s only worsens with time, and those suffering from the disease have little hope for improvement. Huntington’s disease, also a brain-degenerative disorder, is characterized by jerky, involuntary movements, disabled balance and coordination, depression, blunted emotion, and dementia. Like Parkinson’s, Huntington’s has no cure, and its victims usually die within 10 to 30 years of diagnosis. Huntington’s disease in particular affects a very specific part of the brain – the striatum, which is involved in movement coordination. If stem cells could be transplanted into affected areas, they could replace brain cells that are degenerating or dead.
We’re often told that stem cells come from aborted fetuses, and if you oppose abortion, you must also oppose stem cell research and treatment.
The hippocampus is the shaded area in the center of the brain.
It is true that stem cells can be harvested from aborted embryos. However a new, promising source of stem cells is the adult human being. Scientists can now harvest tissue-specific stem cells from numerous locations in the adult body – bone marrow, mammary glands, and even parts of the brain – specifically the subventricular zone and hippocampus. The pluripotency (cell’s ability to differentiate into specific tissues) is surprisingly high for these adult stem cells.
Marrow stem cells can be used to treat blood and marrow diseases, in addition to certain cancers. Most intriguing for scientists are the possibilities for neural stem cells. If we could effectively harvest, maintain, and transplant these stem cells, we could replace neurons in the brain destroyed by degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, as well as traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries. Neural stem cells are practical because they can be easily maintained in a laboratory, and they multiply in a very short amount of time, giving scientists a large pool of donor cells from which to choose.
Adult stem cells still face hurdles. One obstacle is that harvesting these cells is incredibly difficult because their locations in the body require risky and invasive techniques for removal Scientists must find techniques to extract neural stem cells without damaging brain structures surrounding them – a difficult task to say the least.
This barrier, like so many in modern medicine, will come down with enough research. Small steps are being made to treat neural degenerative disorders. While the research is tedious, the possibilities are truly incredible. Adult stem cells could be the final riddle to finding viable treatments for an impressive host of neurological disorders.
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