Conventional therapy has taken a back seat to emerging trends in modern medicine that boast of alternative modalities more effective in preventing, curing and possibly eradicating disease. One such trend is stem cell therapy and recent advancements in the field of study have made it more known and accessible to the public. Once people discovered the ability of stem cells to turn into any type cell (muscle cell, brain cell, blood cell, etc.) and/or tissue due to its pluripotency, scientists were quick to explore their seemingly endless possibilities. For instance, they can be used to treat a wide spectrum of illnesses like cancers, brain disorders and blood dyscrasias. Stem cells are also capable of tissue regeneration and repair such that one could now replace what was ravaged and destroyed by disease (regenerative therapy). The end result of disease progression, cellular death, is no longer irreversible.
But the growing attention to stem cell research and its numerous purported advantages is fraught with controversy. Ethical and moral issues have been raised regarding the harvesting of stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are taken from a fertilized embryo or fetus, where they are most potent. The fetuses do not survive after the stem cells have been harvested thus government officials and religious groups have heavily regulated this practice. Consequently, other scientists have opted to study other viable but less controversial sources of stem cells (e.g. umbilical cord blood and amniotic fluid). Being a relatively new science, some people also contest its efficacy, going further to suggest that stem cell therapy may actually do more harm than good. The advantages and disadvantages of stem cell research are enumerated in further detail below.
List of Advantages of Stem Cell Research
1. Treatment of Fatal Diseases (Cancer).
The most widely practiced form of stem cell therapy is bone marrow transplant, which aims to replace the hematopoietic cells lost in conventional chemotherapy in cancer patients. The new cells also aid in killing cancer cells by initiating a host response against them. Hematopoietic stem cell transplant is indicated in the following malignant diseases: Acute myeloid leukemia (AML), Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), Hodgkin lymphoma (relapsed, refractory), Non-Hodgkin (relapsed or refractory) lymphoma, Neuroblastoma, Ewing sarcoma, Myelodysplastic syndromes, Gliomas and other solid tumors.
2. Treatment of Debilitating Diseases.
Researchers have uncovered the efficacy of stem cell therapy in treating degenerative brain disorders like that of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and ALS. Stem cells are also said to be able to reverse the effects of brain and spinal cord injury due to trauma or stroke by replacing lost neurons. Clinical trials on the efficacy of stem cells in treating cellular death in heart conditions like that of myocardial infarctions are also very promising.
3. Prevention or Elimination of Immune-related and Genetic Diseases.
Some stem cell studies have explored the role of hematopoietic transplant in combating immune-related diseases. Some diseases are brought about by a compromised immune response or the disease is manifest in the inability of the individual to initiate a host response. Stem cells can be used to replace defective blood cells to restore the individual’s immune system. Stem cell research has also expanded to include treatment of HIV AIDS through autologous, gene-modified (HIV-1-resistant) hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells transplant.
Gene therapy is also an emerging trend, which aims to address and eliminate genetic defects in an individual by replacing the defective gene with a new one created from stem cells. The body codes and replicates this healthy new gene, effectively eradicating the genetic disorder.
4. Application in Other Health Fields.
In Dentistry, stem cell therapy is used to regenerate parts of a tooth lost to decay. Gene therapy has also been proven to be effective in treating periodontal disease.
5. Improvement in Treatment and Technologies.
Stem cell research has not only provided physicians with an alternative to conventional treatment but further studies have helped scientists to better understand disease progression. Subsequently, numerous advances have been created or updated to better support or modify their technologies (i.e. equipment, instruments, and laboratory procedures) and treatment modalities.
List of Disadvantages of Stem Cell Research
1. Moral Dilemma.
Moral activists contest the unethical practice of destroying human embryos to harvest embryonic stem cells. Religious groups are staunch in their stand against it, deeming it morally reprehensible. Additionally, the act of people willingly donating fertilized embryos to research perpetuates the idea of abortion.
2. Chance of Failure.
Though stem cells can differentiate into any type of cell, there is no guarantee that they will differentiate into the desired cell or tissue needed for treatment as stem cells are incredibly pluripotent.
Stem cells delivered via hematopoietic transplantation are also in danger of being killed off. The host registers the stem cells as foreign invaders and initiates an immune response against them. That’s why patients requiring transplant are also required to undergo a period of immunosuppression to accept the stem cells.
3. Cost vs. Benefits.
Stem cell therapy is quite expensive. Some people might favor conventional treatment over stem cell therapy because the cost is too steep and may not be worth the benefits.