Most everyone has heard about the controversy surrounding stem cell research and treatment. It seems like just about every media outlet—magazines, newspapers, television—has played host to the debate regarding whether stem cell research and treatment are moral and/or ethical.
Because stem cells have the potential to generate cells designed to replace or repair cells damaged by spinal cord injury, advocates of stem cell research and treatment believe that the benefits far outweigh the negative aspects. Opponents of this research and treatment, however, typically bring up the issue of embryonic stem cells, which are harvested from embryos and fetal tissue. Accordingly, they feel the use of these embryonic stem cells is not moral or ethical. Because stem cells are harvested from embryos and fetal tissue, they feel it is not moral or ethical. Secondly, opponents are concerned about the health and safety of the participants in human stem cell research trials. It is important to note that non-embryonic stem cells, called somatic or “adult” stem cells, have recently been identified in various body tissues including brain, bone marrow, blood vessels, and various organ tissues.
Let’s talk about how stem cell research could possibly impact spinal cord injury. Stem cell research came on the scene in 1998, when a group of scientists isolated pluripotent stem cells from human embryos and grew them in a culture. Since then, specialists have discovered that stem cells can become any of the 200 specialized cells in the body, giving them the ability to repair or replace damaged cells and tissues. While not yet known to have the diversification potential of embryonic stem cells, adult somatic cells act similarly and are generating excitement in the research and medical community.
When all is said and done, could stem cell treatment be the miracle cure for spinal cord injury and paralysis? Well, we don’t really know. Because of all of the controversy, much of the evidence that shows stem cells can be turned into specific cells for transplantation involves only mice, whose cells are significantly different than human cells. Nevertheless, some initial research points to promising results. One hurdle that remains to be cleared is whether an immune response would reject a cellular transplant.
Ultimately, no one yet knows the extent to which stem cell treatment could help spinal cord injury and paralysis. Scientists remain hopeful, but currently there just hasn’t been enough research done to substantiate any particular result. Additional research needs to be done before we have more definitive answers.
When will that research be done?
Again, we just don’t know. Much of the answer depends upon whether the political process and moral debate continues to limit—and put the hold on—the amount of research done. At this point it’s impossible to say for sure when—or even if—stem cells will be useful in the treatment of paralysis.