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Technology is advancing fast. But for people around the world facing the daily challenges of living with a disease, the future just isn’t coming quickly enough. This personal struggle – and increasingly, the untold financial cost of hospitalization and ongoing treatment at a time when the American health care industry is already under scrutiny – is at the core of the ongoing debate regarding stem cell therapies. It is impossible to put this issue simply due to the extraordinary difficulties in translating complex lab research into human benefits – but if one were to try, this controversy is about potential.

The controversy has become well-known, if little understood, but the fact is – stem cells have the potential to eradicate – or very severely hinder – the advancement of a number of diseases that are currently responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people a year. Stem cells are extraordinarily renewable, resilient, adaptable cells – present in every body and responsible for repairing the damages of aging, injury or disability. And given further research, could be developed into cell-based therapies that could change the face of modern medicine. With that in mind – knowing the advantages that could come from continued research – why is this issue under dispute?

What are Stem Cells?

The complication arises from the harvest – or where the stem cells are collected. Most of the controversy is related to embryonic stem cells – cells that are taken from the blastocyst, present in the early weeks of a pregnancy. Once the cells are taken, the embryo is no longer viable. For pro-life factions, this practice is tantamount to abortion. (And one that received significant restrictive legislation during the Bush administration, curbing the collection of stem cell lines from embryos, and thereby limiting research capabilities.) Research has shown that embryonic stem cells are the most adaptable – far better than other-sourced stem cells at adopting the characteristics of the damaged tissue, thereby ‘healing’ it.

There are however other, less devastating sources of stem cells – among them the collection of ‘cord blood’ from newborn infants and the promising adaptation (via genetic reprogramming) of adult skin cells into stem cells. Current research has been mainly limited to animals, but even so, the progress made in the lab-setting has been promising. The adaptability and storage life of stem cells allows them to act as an in-body repair shop. Once injected, stem cells are drawn to the site of any diseased or damaged tissue by chemical markers released from damaged cells. There they are able to adapt, creating new tissue that can heal the harm done by genetics, disease or environmental factors. Any unused cells will store themselves in the bone marrow, releasing whenever the threatening chemical markers resume.

Alzheimer’s. Cancer. Spinal cord injury. Stroke. Burns. Arthritis. Diabetes. Heart disease. These are only a few of the ailments that further stem cell research could potentially eradicate. It will take time, and funding, and an understanding that significant medical advancements do not happen overnight. Today, scientists know little of why stem cells are so able to adapt, so vital to human biology – but the foundation is laid. Regardless of the current debate over attaining stem cells, for a global population of millions, the future looks promising.