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STEM CELLS: Promise and Difficulty

Stem cells are unspecial-ized cells that give rise to the different types of cells that make up the human body. Scientists researching stem cells hope someday to be able to use them to replace damaged or diseased cells in the body. There are two general types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.

Embryonic Stem Cells

Embryonic stem cells seem to show more promise in medical treatment than do adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are easier to find than are adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells can reproduce indefinitely in culture and have the potential to grow into any cell type. However, embryonic stem cells would be genetically different from the cells of a transplant recipient. The recipient's immune system could reject the cells, causing transplant failure.

Adult Stem Cells

Some stem cells remain in the body into adulthood. These adult stem cells naturally produce just one or a few types of cells. For example, bone marrow stem cells give rise only to new blood cells. Studies have shown some success in coaxing adult stem cells into becoming other cell types. Using a person's own stem cells for cell transplant would avoid a possible immune response. However, because there are so few adult stem cells, they can be difficult to find. Adult stem cells also have a limited life span in the lab, which gives rise to questions about the life span of any transplant done with adult stem cells.

Stem Cell Controversy

Despite the possibilities of stem cell use, research on them has been controversial. Embryonic stem cells are harvested from human embryos

In 2004, New York Mets coach Don Baylor (center) enjoyed his first day back with the team after receiving stem cell replacement therapy for cancer.

that are unused for fertility treatment. When embryonic stem cells are harvested, the embryo is destroyed. Many people believe it is unethical to destroy embryos that have the potential to develop into babies. The harvesting of adult stem cells causes no lasting harm to the donor, but the potential for the cells may be limited.

Stem cell transplants might one day be used routinely to treat diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, cancer, and spinal cord injuries. We may even be able to grow complete new organs from stem cells. Funding will be one factor that affects the direction of research. Federal, state, and private funding set the landscape for the future of stem cell research. While the promise of stem cells seems unlimited, major advances will only be achieved through years of intensive research.

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