Stem Cells 101 gave a very brief, simple look at stem cells. Now we will look at the possible areas in which they may be used. I really want to unpack this before touching on the ethical issues. In this post I am concentrating on impairments and diseases. Part 2 will look at the potentially more contentious issue of cloning.
It is important to realise that while there are applications were adult stems cells are being used in medical procedures to good effect (in particular bone marrow transplants to treat Leukemia, and one of my friends is alive today because of that particular procedure!), presently there are no medical procedures being used based on Embryonic stem cells. So is all this noise a waste of time? Well, no. Research is still in the early stages. Indeed the first time that human stem cells were first derived was only in 1998. In the 10 years since then a lot has been found out, but this has also been hampered by restrictions, many political in nature. Certainly no one is doubting that this is a complex part of medical science. The mass media has not helped, by some of the very poor reporting, and exaggerated claims that they have fed the general public. Even if this research will produce cures & applications (which I am confident they eventually will), these are not "just around the corner", as has been reported in many instances in the previous decade. The reality is that I shall keep my wheelchair for the time being, and my father is probably too old for him to receive any cure for his Parkinson's Disease in time.
But the potential of stem cell research is enormous. Not only for the number of diverse conditions that may finally have a cure (or even a prevention), but also because of the nature of many of those diseases. Medicine has made some amazing advantages over the last century, and probably each of either would be, or have a close family member who would have died, if it were not for some medical intervention or other. Certainly 75% of my immediate family would be dead, including me. But there are still many really serious conditions and impairments that we just have no answers for yet. Many of these have a profound effect on peoples' lives. The possible diseases and impairments that stem cell research has the potential to effect includes (this list is not meant to be exhaustive!):
- Parkinson's Disease (think Michael J Fox, Muhammad Ali)
- Spinal cord injuries (Think Superman…and...dissol!!?)
- Retinal disorders (Stevie Wonder)
- Multiple Sclerosis (up to 150 out of every 100,000 of the population)
- Alzheimer's Disease (26.6million people worldwide think Ronald Reagan, Terry Pratchett), although it has to be said that some recent research in this particular field is painting a less promising picture than we had thought...
- Motor Neurone Disease (Prof Stephen Hawking, David Niven)
- Muscular Dystrophy
- Huntington's Disease
- Spinal Muscular Atrophy
- Others (Blood & Pancreas mostly)
- Leukemia (2% of all cancers)
- Sickle-cell Anemia (especially important to us in sub-Saharan Africa)
- Immunodeficiency (including HIV & AIDS)
- Lymphomas (5% of all cancers)
- Lupus (Michael Jackson, Elaine Paige Seal)
- Arthritis (Nelson Mandela)
- Bone Marrow Failure
- Diabetes (171million people or 2.8% of the global population, and rising, rapidly)
Of course, I am not claiming for a moment, that stem cell research will find absolute cures for the above, or any of the above. That is a common mistake made by the mass media. It may be, that some of the hurdles that researchers are finding out about, that they are insurmountable. But the research is looking very exciting in many of these different areas. I doubt we shall see any cures in widespread use soon. The best estimates seem to be looking 3 - 10 years ahead. That is also sometimes used as a argument against stem cell research; they ask "where are the cures?" This is not unreasonable, but the reality is that we do have some (small) cures and advances already, but also that this whole area of research is very complex, and by the nature of the research much of it is slow moving. Remember human stem cells were only first isolated in 1998…a mere 10 years.
Next post will be looking at the more contentious (and I would suggest less well understood) issues of cloning, both therapeutic and reproductive cloning. Only then, once we can agree some baselines, should we begin to think about some of the ethical issues around this research.