Stem cell research - the good, the bad and the unknown

Friday 17th February  2012

  • Stem cell research can make major contributions to health...
  • ...but is using test tube babies a step too far?
  • A clear explanation on new techniques reignites Ray's passion 

Stem cell research is a modern breakthrough. But it is a topic which has always made me uncomfortable…

If, like me, you have heard about these elusive ‘wonder treatments’ but worried about how stem cells were harvested then read on...

...You see it all started last Tuesday morning when I was driving up to the Midlands to see my editor and the customer service team.

I was listening to Radio Four and they had a researcher on talking about how they were using stem cells to help people recover from heart attacks.

And for once he talked in plain, easy-to-understand terms about how the cells are found, cultivated and used to overcome the catastrophic damage caused in heart muscle as a result of an attack.

His words inspired me to revisit some of the research I had been doing into this branch of modern medicine, and in today’s letter I want to share the results with you.

Stem cells help the body heal itself

Stem cells are like the remnants of the fertilised egg that we all started out as.

One of the miracles of life is that fact that from the union of the sperm and the ovum that very first cell is able to grow, divide and develop into every one of the different tissue types of the body.

Just think about that for a moment…

A single cell contains the ability to become something as diverse as our teeth, the hair on our head, our bones, muscles, blood and skin.

It’s almost like it is everything and nothing; just a big bag of potential.

And that is what a stem cell is – potential. You see when a stem cell divides it can either become another stem cell or another cell with a specialised function.

It is under certain physiologic conditions that the cell can be induced to become tissue or organ specific.

As part of our normal growth and renewal process our bodies call upon stem cells, which are present naturally in our tissues to do their stuff.

They easily cope with an annual turnover of a few percent of cells in all of our organs, however, if something big happens like a heart attack where 25-30% of the muscle is destroyed in one go, they simply can’t act quickly enough.

That’s where the scientists come in.

By harvesting a little tissue from the healthy part of the heart they can grow and extract pure stem cells from it, which are primed and ready to go to become cardiac muscle.

They are introduced back into the defective tissue and quickly act to repair the scar and provide functional tissue once more.

I think the whole concept is amazing.

Just think this doesn’t involve drug therapy to suppress your immune system like a transplant would and it doesn’t need hours and hours of surgery either – just a bit of skill.

When it comes to using these types of stem cells I can’t see a down side – but there are darker corners of this research which will test our ethical views.

Let me explain…

The dangers of stem cell research

Basically the most potent stem cells are active when we are babies, after all that is when we do most of our growing isn’t it.

By the time we reach our mature state our stem cells are fewer in number and much less active, plus there is the risk of acquired genetic problems beginning to show up.

So another route to getting healthy and viable cells is from embryonic sources.

And this is the bit I really am not comfortable with.

In 1998 a team of researchers discovered that they could isolate pluripotent cells from developing human embryos, and these have been used in several studies since.

The embryos in question are created in the laboratory and do not develop beyond the first bundle of cells, however, the ethical challenges that this type of procedure entails takes me a step too far.

I know the potential is there to do good, and can see the extent of the conditions which can be resolved with these cells – I just can’t condone the way they are derived.

That is why I have always shied away from discussing this branch of medicine because the whole thing creates too many polarised viewpoints – not least my own.

Could stem cell research bring new hope for Alzheimer’s sufferers?

The whole Radio Four thing changed my view though as I realised that the scientists had not been idle.

The chap was explaining that they were now able to harvest cells from any organ and ‘reprogram’ them to assume a stem cell like state, as such they are known as Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSC’s).

One area which is being actively covered by research with iPSC’s concerns dementia and Alzheimer’s where the loss of key brain cells leads to the gradual decimation of sufferers mental capability and personality.

Given that these cells can now be harvested in a much more humane way I am much more inclined to start to put my faith in this as a route to recovery for Dad and the thousands of other sufferers.

I’m back on the research trail again and will report any developments as they come in.

Yours, as always



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