After recent research leads to the creation of stem cells using cloning techniques, Sara Holbrook writes about the work and some of its implications
Two weeks ago there was a serious breakthrough in stem cell research. It was revealed that scientists in Chicago had discovered a way to clone human cells and make them into stem cells. This latest achievement, published in the journal Nature, proves that personalised stem cells can be created from adult human cells. These stem cells can then be used to repair damaged areas in the body.
‘Stem cells’ is a phrase that is often heard in the news, usually with some sort of controversy surrounding it, but do most people actually know what the phrase means? Stem cells are the body’s master cells; they are the basic source material for all other cells. In theory a stem cell could be planted in the heart and could repair the damage done by a heart attack. Stem cells are the latest great hope in the medical world as they have the ability to morph into any other type of cell in the body.
Up to now embryonic stem cells, meaning leftover eggs from fertility clinics, were bought and used by researchers. The problem with embryonic stem cells is that they do not contain the DNA of the person receiving them. This means that they can be rejected by the body’s immune system, the same way that donated organs are sometimes rejected. This new study showed that human eggs have the ability to transform specific adult cells back into stem cells. So to break it down, a skin cell can be implanted into a human egg and it will be reverted to a stem cell. It could then be implanted into the eye in order to restore vision.
One of the major complications is that when a person’s cell is inserted into the human egg, the egg’s DNA must be left in place in order for it to multiply. This means that there are two chromosomes from the adult’s cell, plus the chromosome already in the egg. This is problematic as embryos that do not have the correct number of chromosomes often cannot develop at all. Scientists are going to have to come up with a way to create embryonic cells which only have donor DNA. Of course there is a moral conflict surrounding this new research, and many say that embryos should not be abused in this way when they have the potential to keep multiplying and developing into foetuses. Even with the dissenting voices, however, the potential cannot be ignored; this is only the first step in a long process of using stem cells to cure diseases such as heart disease, blindness and diabetes.