Biotechnology incorporates the biological and
technological competences that when combined produce a new and exciting field
available where new research is dedicated. It has been defined by Thielman and
Palladino as an interdisciplinary science that uses biological organisms or
their products for the use or benefit of humankind. This discipline has been
seen to have a few roots in other scientific disciplines such as molecular
biology and computer science. This science has now spread throughout many more
disciplines, so far so that it has applications in all throughout.
With all the positive that surrounds this field it goes
without saying that there are negatives associated with it. With the discovery
of new age applications such as plasmid recombination and the Human Genome
Project, these revelations could not have been borne without the use of
somewhat questionable practices. One such application that has had its share of
scrutiny is Stem Cell Research.
Stem cell research is a biotechnology application that
uses the potential of immature cells which have the ability to develop into
various types of cells such as cardiac cells, muscle cells, or liver cells. In practice,
stem cells are grown in lab and chemically treated to achieve the wanted cell.
It has applications in regenerative medicine where it is
used to restore degenerative tissue and organs of persons suffering from
chronic disease or injury. Stem cell research has laid the groundwork in tissue
editing due to their implied indefinite division. This application of tissue
and gene editing alongside stem cells can produce tangible organs that are
direct descendants of the donor, reducing the chances of rejection which is the
case of transplant medicine today.
In current research, stem cells are obtained from embryos;
this involves eggs that have been donated and fertilized in vitro with consent.
The cells are cultured in a medium suitable for their growth with hopes to
produce an embryonic stem cell line. In certain conditions this does not occur
however, when the procedure is successful, the cells are allowed to divide at
maximum while not overcrowding the dish. To continue the process, cells are
removed and re-plated. This can continue for months where the original cell can
yield millions of embryonic cells. Undergoing quality assurance, the cells are
checked to ensure that they have remained pluripotent (dividing without
differentiating) and without any mutation.
Although large division of stem cells without mutation can
be deemed a success, the true test of stem cells is their ability to
differentiate. Scientist have developed different procedures by which they can
control the type of cell that is produced by a batch of stem cells whether by
the addition of certain genes, changes to the medium, or even the surface to
which the cells grow.
A second class of stem cell are adult stem cell or somatic
stem cells. These are undifferentiated cells that are found among
differentiated cells of tissue with the capacity to renew and regenerate
themselves into a variety of different cells. In comparison to that of
embryonic stem cells, these are harvested from living persons from tissue such
as the brain, bone marrow, skin, teeth, blood vessels, and even skeletal
muscles. With research, it has been discovered that these cells occupy a space
called a “stem cell niche” where they compose the outermost layer of these
tissues. They remain pluripotent until stimulated to regenerate.
Induced pluripotent stem cells, a third class of stem cell
are reprogrammed adult somatic stem cells that have been reprogrammed to
resemble embryonic stem cells. The cells are harvested directly from the donor
and treated to be reused for implantation.
There are further subdivisions of this class of stem cell
such as hematopoietic stem cells, mesenchymal stem cells, and neural stem
cells. Some of which have been shown to undergo trans-differentiation; the
means of differentiating into another cell type completely distinct of its
Dr. E Thomas, who later won the Nobel prize for his work
in bone marrow transplant is considered the pioneer to Stem cell research. He
performed the first successful bone marrow transplant in a patient suffering
from Leukemia from an identical twin.
In 1960, researchers first discovered that bone marrow may
contain different stem cells, hematopoietic and stromal. Eight years later, this
research was used to treat a young boy with immunodefiency syndrome by a bone
marrow transplant with his sister as a donor. This was first time a patient not
presenting signs of cancer was treated with a bone marrow.
Stem cell research was first introduced in 1978 where the
first line of embryonic stem cells was discovered in human umbilical cord
blood. The first cloning of from a stem cell line was done in 1997 producing
Dolly the sheep.
After this success, between 1984 and 1998, pluripotent
stem cells are isolated and treated where it was observed that they can
differentiate into neuron cells and other cells of the sort. Recently, Japanese
scientists have cultivated the first kidney for transplant into a living
organism. During this period of time, advancements and discoveries have been
made propelling stem cell research to new frontiers of regenerative medicine
The methods involved in producing stem cell lines varies
with the type of cell that is to be produced. In an article by Bunnel et al in
2013., he illustrates the mode by which he and his team isolate and thereafter
differentiate adipose tissue stem cells. According to their research, adipose
stem cells carry with them multipotent properties that can be used for tissue
engineering and regeneration.
The cells are isolated from tissue most successfully by
liposuction in a phosphate buffered saline solution and 5%
penicillin/streptomycin. The solution containing the reagents and adipose
tissue sample is digested to remove any debris. The cell solution is then
treated by an array of reagents where it is then centrifuged. The pellet is
removed and placed in a lysis buffer where the cell suspension is strained and
plated. Once the cells have been plated, they can be stored in vials placed in
liquid nitrogen for long term storage.
Because of their multipotent properties, adipose stem
cells have garnered a lot of attention from the scientific community. The
ability of these cells to differentiate into other cell types makes their use
very important. The differentiation can be controlled by cytokines or a medley
of chemicals used for induction. The process is highly patient oriented which
can play a role in the success of the method. According to various studies, the
age of the donor can determine the yield of differentiated cells where younger
persons have a higher differentiation yield. This method of isolation and differentiation
of adipose stem cells can be used in a variety of fields ranging from
osteogenesis, chondrogenesis, and neurogenesis.
Another research article conducted by Schwartz et al., speaks
about embryo derived pluripotent stem cells and their capability to be
differentiated into neural cells. The method of this research is used in a
number of scenarios from treating Parkinson’s disease in mice to treating
animal model spinal injuries.
Though this application of biotechnology research has
future use in repairing damaged spinal cords, vision, muscle tissue, and organs
it is still to be well received by persons outside the scientific community. According
to the Professional Ethics Report, the issues surrounding stem cell research
has begun as early as 1998. Adult stem cells have shown their capability in
being able to generate different cells including cells able to regenerate blood
cells. The cells with farther capability are embryonic stem cells. The controversy
arises from the ethical and respectful manner in which to harvest and test
embryonic stem cells that are donated. Going further, if these cells are so important
and worth the time and effort, what constitutes as a worthy cause?
There is currently no funding for stem cell research and
all advancements that have been made, especially in the last ten years have
been due to private funding. Currently, the United Stated Food & Drug Administration
(FDA) restricts any use of stem cells with the exception of hematopoietic stem
cells for the use of blood cell regeneration. The testing of these cells must
be done according to FDA regulation with strict coherence. They are limited to
a few procedures in patients that suffer with disorders that might affect their
production of blood. The FDA has since taken even more action that in August of
2017, announced that it will be enforcing stricter regulations on stem cell
banks and persons imitating them by offering relief. This of course is not
without cause. In 2016 a few cases were discussed where a patient was injected
with stem cells in the eye and later became blind, another grew a spinal tumor.
The warning by the FDA are to ensure that persons seeking help and relief are
not led to believe that stem cell research is a cure all for their disorders.
In 2001, the Bush administration and pro-life party
allowed funding to the National Institute of Health for the use of existing stem
cells and banned the use of any other donated cells. The NIH deemed less than
half of those cells fit for use. What more is that the ban bottlenecked the
working environment for many scientist and their international relationships
with regards to their sharing of information and contribution. Of the 21 lines
that were deemed useful, they were prepared in a way that would seem careless
by today’s standards of laboratory practices. The order carried out by President
Bush was not well received by the scientific community including the head of
the National Health Institute under the Bush administration who believed this to
be a setback in the progress toward research and advancement.
Some people believed that stem cell research is on the
same field as pro- life where human life begins at implantation and are
vehemently against it. Others of the pro-life syndicate did not see it the same
way. Senator Hatch stated that the “human life begins in the womb and not the
petri dish or refrigerator…the situation dictates that these embryos which are
routinely discarded, be used to improve and save lives.” There are pro-life
supporters that see the possibility contained within stem cells suggesting that
stem cell research be done using frozen embryos obtained by a couple that has
tried infertility treatment.
In 2009, the Obama administration revoked the order of
their predecessor allowing funding to the NIH for new embryonic stem cell lines
that were previously restricted. The act initiated a review of the guidelines
by which the NIH were regulated and the issuance of new criteria for stem cell
research. This news was welcomed throughout the scientific community and almost
60 percent of the American population supported the use of federal funding for
embryonic stem cell research based on a polling done by the Washington Post. The
reversal of the order did open more doors for research but did not increase the
number of viable sources to conduct that research. After the regulation and
criteria were amended by the NIH, embryonic cells that were acquired from fertility
clinics or created for specific research were the only ones to be used for
research. Because of this many states have set up independent facilities that
are privately funded completely bypassing the NIH and the need for federal
The European Union has a slightly different take on what
should be done with stem cell research. For instance, the current legal standing
of the United Kingdom on the issues of stem cell research states that tissues
and cells that are procured are to be used solely for research based and not be
transplanted into humans. These cells do not have any definite restrictions or regulations
but must be registered with the Research Ethics committee. Thereafter, they can
be stored as the researcher sees fit until their research has been concluded.
Tissues and cells for transplantation must be licensed under
the Human Tissue Regulation of 2007. This regulation act serves to govern over
how the cells are acquired, tested, stored, distributed and transplanted into
humans whether it be for medicinal therapy or research. The use of embryonic
stem cells is allowed only when given consent by the donor. These cells are
only licensed once the research aim can meet certain conditions outlined in the
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
In the past few years there have been success and failure
for stem cells. In November of 2017 a nine-year-old boy suffering from epidermolysis
bullosa; a condition where there is a genetic defect in the protein forming
genes necessary to form skin was treated. Approximately 80 percent of his skin
was grafted with modified stem cells at the Muenster University hospital in
Germany led by Dr. Michele De Luca. There are five types of the disease and
thirty-one subtypes all of which are incurable. Over five hundred thousand people
worldwide are affected with this disorder and forty percent die before adolescence.
Researchers biopsied stem cells from the healthy areas of
the boy’s skin. A healthy version of the gene for skin regeneration was added to
the cells and placed in a vector. The cells were grown on fibrin substrate similar
to the material used to treat burn victims, a process which took approximately
four weeks. The first round of grafting done to his appendages was done in 2015
and the second round was completed this past November. Researchers have been
monitoring the boy for any signs of rejection of which he has shown none.
In another case discovered in May 2017, fat cells were
removed from a patient and cultured to form adipose derived stem cells. They were
used to form cartilage for his swollen cystic wrist. After the first procedure,
there was markedly immediate response to the treatment and within seven months there
were no longer any cysts or inflammation. There were visible signs of bone
reconstruction and new cartilage all confirmed by MRI scanning performed by Dr.
Eckhard Alt of the Isar Klinikum in Germany.
To conclude, stem cell research can give persons a second
chance at what was lost whether it was an organ, appendage, or degenerative
tissue. The research field of stem cells is also an interesting talking point.
Within our bodies we have a cell that is capable of becoming something other
than what it was intended to be for example fat cells becoming cartilage. Under
the correct conditions, these cells can be reprogrammed for differentiation of
an organ entirely different to its original cell type. It is also remarkable
that the cells have the ability to divide indefinitely.
With continuing research and persons dedicated to the
cause, the goals of what stem cells can achieve are limitless. So much
successful research has been done in the past ten years alone that people are
seeking this as a means to an end of deteriorating conditions to which they are
finding ease. Cancer is the second leading cause of mortality in the developed
world and stem cell research has also began to find ways to reduce its effects.
Lou Gherig’s disease is currently a number one source of experimental research
in neuroscience where scientists are finding new ways to cure nervous system
Because there has been some success with treatments, I
will say that further research and measures must be taken to ensure that beyond
a reason of a doubt, stem cells can be used as a treatment option. No procedure
is without its risks but at the moment there is too much looming over the head
of stem cell research.