what are stem cells

Organic Mama aksk:

Why are stem cells such a big deal that THAT MAN in office feels personally threatened and then stomps all over any laws supporting the research? Are stem cells that miraculous? “Splainy, please.

Stem cells really are a big deal. They are the cells in an early embryo that can turn into any type of cell that is found in the body. The proper term is actaully “undifferentiated stem cells” – there are a lot of different types of stem cells, and the “good” ones are undifferentiated.

When an ova is fertilized, the resulting single cell divides in two, then those cells divide, etc. etc. until there are enough cells to make a baby. As the cells divide, they become specialized – they turn into liver cells, skin, and so on. An undifferentiated stem cell is a cell that has not yet specialized, and still has the potential to become any type of cell. The undifferentiated stem cells are special becuase there are “stem cells” – cells that have not become specialized yet, but no longer have the ability to become any cell type. For example, you will find stem cells in the area of an early eye, but they cannot become liver cells – they can only become the cells that make up the eye. They are still stem cells because as they continue to divide ,they will specialize into more than one cell type, but they are not undifferentiated because they cannot become any cell type.

The Big Deal with stem cells is all about their capability to becmoe more than one cell type. A grossly simplified example:

Lets say someone has been badly burned, and needs a lot of skin grafts. Skin is made up of a bunch of different cell types. By using stem cells in the graft, the stem cells can change into all the types of cells needed to make skin. there have been experiments done with lab animals that have damaged optic nerves – the nerves that go to the eye – leaving them completely blind. By using stem cells, it has been possible to grow a whole new optic nerve. Not only a new optic nerve, but it actually connects tot he right places in the eye and brain. The animals didn’t get much vision back – only about 10% of normal, but that is a huge step forward in nerve regeneration. Ther are similar successes in things like replacing defective pancreatic cells (diabetes), treating certain neurological diseases, and such.

So, why is this such a big deal for captain Bozo in the white house? Because those early stem cells need to come from somewhere. In the good old days, all of 20 years ago or so, they were sold by fertility clinics that had created too many fertilized ova in “test tube” fertilizations to help infertile couples have kids. Back then, the zygote (fertilized ova) was dosed with all kinds of chemicals that would encourage it to divide, but remain undifferentiated, and would allow the individual cells to be easilt (OK more easily) manipulated so they could be split up, and then grown into more stem cells. Back in those days, scientists didn’t know as much as we do now, and couldn’t prevent the stem cells from changing a bit, so they tended to try and encourage them to grow into particular types of stem cells – for instance nerve precursor cells and the like. Because Our Bozo “talks to god”, he knows that anything that would possibly glean any good or potential good from any use of a zygote is A Bad Thing. After all, even if that zygote was destined for the waste basket, it was god that made it possible to actually mix sperm and ova together in a test tube and get a zygote. Besides, “every sperm is sacred…..”

In any case, the handfull (about 20-30) of stem cell lines that are still viable from those early cultures are all fairly restricted – they are not pluripotent. Also, because of the fairly primitive (by today’s standards) methods used to isolate and grow the stem cells, there are a lot of questions about the effects the early handling may have had on the cells. Because of bozo’s policies, it has been illegal in the US to create any new stem cell lines by any methods, so US researchers have been restricted to using only those original cultures. Kind of like driving a VW bug – it was great in the 60’s, but by today’s standards, they’re dangerouse, polluting relics.

So, anyway, Mr. Bozo apparently thinks that anything that uses zygotes, in any form, must harvest the zygotes from abortions, and his radical right jesus freak buddies have made it clear that anything that could possible conflict with their minority view (that abortion is pure unadulterated evil) must be avoided. Remember, Jerry Falwell and the immoral minority really do know what is best for you, and for everyone else. At least they convinced bozo of that.

But, there is good news. The only real way Bozo can unilateraly prevent stem cell research is by refusing to allow the federal government to fund the research (or to fund any organization that does stem cell research). This means that most universities, which rely heavily on federal funds for research won’t touch stem cell research – they can’t risk losing a major revenue stream. However, when you’ve got a bunch of Really Smart Folks who have made their career doing stem cell research, they aren’t likely to simply go away. Instead, they go commercial, start non-profit research intitutes, and so on. Many states have realized how stupid Bozo is, and have started funding stem cell research at the state level. There are at least two states that have built large world class stem cell research facilities, staffed them, and continued the research. At the global level, pretty much every country that has any scientific research going on at all has stem cell programs.

As with any new medical research, stem cell therapy faces a long road – there aren’t many tested stem cell therapies. Perhaps the most well known is bone marrow transplants. This is used to treat a variety of diseases, the most well known is as a treatment for leukemia. In this case, stem cells for blood are taken from bone marrow, and transplanted into the recipient (who hsa no blood-making stem cells), where they “seed” the recipients bone marrow with more blood stem cells. If the transplant works, the recipient will start making new blood cells. Unfortunately, there are a lot of quack stem cell therapies out there – a quick web search will come up with companies that are willing to “Treat” a variety of disorders with umbilicle cord stem cells (the umbilicle cord has a ton of stem cells in it – not pluripotent, but still stem cells), treatments that supposedly cure AIDS, diabetes, senility, and pretty much any other disorder that modern medicine hasn’t found a true cure for.

So, there ya go. Stem cells are pretty cool little beasties, but for now, the research is in the eaarly stages. eventually, there will be some great therapies that come from them – almost everyone agrees that the potential is huge. How long it will take to get there……. Well, that’s another question.

-Dr. Science

2 Responses to “what are stem cells”

  1. Organic Mama Says:

    Phew. Thank you for that exhaustive answer, and put so delicately, too! I am certain that Mr. Bozo (that MISTER to you!) would just love your splaining 0of the issue, but that aside, your answer clarified the conversation for me, so THANK YOU!

    Um, so how long will it take to get there?

  2. sphyrnatude Says:

    To read more about stem cells, timing and medicine, take a peek at:


    -Dr. Science

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