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A New Hope for Life – Stem Cells

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Ever imagined, what it would be like to lead a disease free life and be a part of a world where every body is hale and hearty? Well, it may sound utopian right now but with researches on stem cells on full swing, a few years down the line, it is a definite possibility.

On Oct. 16, 2006, Carron Morrow, from Alabama was successfully cured through a pioneering study in which stem cells were used to regenerate her failing heart. Not long after the surgery, Morrow began to feel like the same old energetic person. “I knew within two months something was going on,” Morrow said. “I could sing a whole song at church.” She soon got back to her job, and subsequent tests confirmed that her heart was functioning normally once again.

In January 2005, a young American woman, Erica Nader, suffered injuries in a car accident and was paralysed from the upper arms down. She was then treated for a spinal cord injury using stem cells derived from her nose. This one of its kind procedure was performed by a team of surgeons in Portugal at Lisbon’s Egas Moniz Hospital. “After three years, magnetic imaging resonance tests (MRIdefine [2]’s) show that the cells indeed promote the development of new blood cells and synapses, or connections between nerve cells,” says Dr. Carlos Lima, chief of the Lisbon team.

What are Stem Cells
Stem cells are said to be primal in nature. To put it into simpler terms, the different cell and tissue types within the body are all derived from stem cells, and hence the name.

Stem cells are “blank” cells. Their specific function has still not been identified, but what is known is stem cells have a high capacity of self-renewal or being converted into a desired cell or tissue type such as muscle cell or red blood cell or a nerve cell. This characteristic feature of stem cells has enabled scientists to artificially culture stem cells under laboratory conditions.

How the Theory of Self Renewal of Cells Works
In order to clearly understand how stem cells carry out the process of curing ailments, one must first comprehend the process of division of stem cells. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a specified function – such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell or a nerve cell. Under the right environment, stem cells have the latent ability to give rise to a number of tissues that form different organs of our body.

When this process of cell division is carried out repeatedly, it replenishes the deficient or damaged cells within the body, thus carrying out an internal repair system. Their potential to provide cells and tissues to treat scores of incapacitating and life-threatening diseases is the reason they are considered a huge breakthrough in regenerative medicine.

Types of Stem Cells
There are three types of stem cells, depending upon the source from which they are derived, namely:
1. Bone marrow,
2. Embryonic tissue and
3. Umbilical corddefine [3] blood

Bone Marrow Stem Cell
The marrow present inside our bones is a potential source of stem cells. The dilemma with bone marrow transplants is that stem cells present in it are in very small quantity and the process of tracing it is both painstaking and cumbersome. Bone marrow transplant has been used to treat leukaemia and other types of cancers as well as various blood disorders in the recent past.

Umbilical Cord Blood Cell
Cord blood is the blood left over in the umbilical cord and placentadefine [4] after the birth of a baby. This blood has been found to be an extremely rich source of stem cells. Traditionally discarded after a child’s birth, umbilical cord blood can now be preserved for as long as one wishes to. Which means that should a need arise, your child will have a ready source of stem cells.

What is interesting is, sometimes these stem cells can be used to cure even the other family members of a host of diseases, provided certain tests result match. Researches at the Life Cell Sciences Institute, Bangalore, have established that siblings have 25 percent chances of providing a suitable match. Some clinical tests have also established that stem cells when derived from a family member are twice as successful as against a non family member.

Further, there are no ethical issues with respect to this source of stem cells because the cord blood, in other circumstances, would have been discarded.

Embryonic Stem Cell
An embryo also happens to be a rich source of the multi potent stem cells. However, the very fact that extraction of stem cells from an embryo results into the killing of the foetus has put this potential source of stem cells under much heat, and debates on ethical grounds have ensued in the recent past.

Diseases Treated So Far
Stem cell transplants have been used since 1960, in various parts of the world to treat a horde of diseases such as acute leukaemia, immune systemdefine [5] disorders, platelet disorders, metabolic disorders, plasmadefine [6] cell disorders, malignancies, Parkinson’s & Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, juvenile diabetes, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Research is currently on on a multitude of other diseases. With such a good track record it is difficult to ignore the future possibilities that stem cell has to offer.

A New Hope for Life – Stem Cells
By Gunjan Mehra

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