A Stem Cell Primer


Good journalists take pride in getting their facts right. Newspapers don’t like to issue retractions or corrections. But, there’s one subject where they are consistently sloppy or wrong: stem cell research. There are three sources of stem cells—adult, embryonic and induced state cells—but the media group al of these under the broad “stem cell research” umbrella. Before we unpack the issues in the public debate, we need to get our facts right.

A stem cell is any cell in the human body that can divide to replicate an exact copy of itself—another stem cell—and also create a daughter cell of a different type.[1] For example a blood stem cell can create another blood stem cell plus a “daughter” white blood cell. Stem cells can replace damaged or dying cells. This potential has captivated scientists and inspired a new field of research known as regenerative medicine.

Embryos, who are tiny humans, hold a special attraction for researchers in regenerative medicine. Why? These are the sources of “pluripotent” stem cells, which create all of the more than 200 tissues found in the human body. The only way to harvest these cells is by tearing apart the human embryo. Embryonic stem cells are a risky option for medical treatments, as they can easily turn into benign or potentially deadly cancerous tumors. So far, there have been no successful human treatments resulting from this research.

All proven stem cell treatments come from adult stem cells. These cells are found in many places in the body including bone marrow, skin, and fat. Recently, they have also been found in the umbilical cord, amniotic fluid, and the placenta. Cord blood cells might be more flexible than other adult stem cells, a distinct advantage.[2] Unlike embryonic stem cells, no human life is destroyed in the harvesting of these cells. In fact, until recently some were discarded as medical waste after childbirth. Adult stem cells do not raise the risk of tumor formation. So far, over 70 diseases and conditions have been treated or cured through the use of adult stem cells.[3] The latest breakthrough is the use of bone marrow stem cells to treat children with a deadly skin disease.

Another resource for regenerative medicine is induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS. IPS cells are created from a skin cell that has been genetically “turned back” into an “embryonic-like” pluripotent stem cell. Not too long ago, researchers thought this was nearly impossible. While iPS cells raise similar tumor formation concerns as embryonic stem cells, iPS cells are being used to study diseases such as type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Furthermore, no embryos are destroyed.

As Christians we know that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, including our stem cells. We can hope that ethical avenues of this research will help us to find treatments and cures for disease. It’ the unethical research—embryonic stem cell research—we oppose.

So, stay ahead of the journalists. Remember the facts about the three kinds of stem cell research. It makes a difference.

[1] For more information on stem cells see National Institutes of Health, “Stem Cell Basics,” available at http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/ (accessed August 27, 2010).

[2] For a list of diseases treated from cord blood stem cells see National Cord Blood Program, "Cord Blood Q&A." available at http://www.nationalcordbloodprogram.org/qa/ (accessed August 30, 2010).

[3] For a list of diseases and conditions currently treated with adult stem cells see Stem Cell Research Facts, "Therapies & Treament." available at http://www.stemcellresearchfacts.org/treatment-list/ (accessed August 30, 2010).


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