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Stem Cell Research Updates

What is Stem Cell Research

Stem cells are cells with the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and to give rise to specialized cells. Stem cells have two characteristics that differentiate them from other types of cells:

  • Stem cells are unspecialized cells that replicate themselves for long periods through cell division.
  • Under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, stem cells can be induced to become mature cells with special functions, such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

Current studies are researching how stem cells may be used to prevent or cure diseases and injuries such as Parkinson's disease, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer's disease, strokes, burns, osteoarthritis, vision and hearing loss. In addition, stem cells could also be used to replace or repair tissue damaged by disease or injury.

The Difficult Past for Stem Cell Research

The first known use of the term “stem cell” appeared in scientific literature, when German biologist Ernst Haeckel used the phrase stem cell to describe the fertilized egg that becomes an organism. Since that day, research conducted using stem cells has met largely with opposition. In 1996, Congress banned federal funding for research on embryos by passing the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. While the statute prohibited the use of federal funds for the creation of a human embryo for research purposes, it did not completely limit the private sector. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) interpreted the Dickey-Wicker Statute to create certain guidelines for the private sector. First, human embryonic stem cells must be a result of private funding from frozen embryos in fertility clinics. Second, they must have been created for fertility treatment purposes. Third, they be in excess of the donor's clinical need. Finally, they be obtained with consent of the donor.

Stem cell research functioned in this manner from 2001 until an executive order was passed in 2009 by President Barack Obama. The executive order, titled "Removing Barriers to Responsible Scientific Research Involving Human Stem Cells," with the purpose of removing the barriers involving human embryonic stem cells and human non-embryonic stem cells. Shortly after the executive order, a group of plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against NIH and the Department of Health and Human Services, contending that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research is in violation of the Dickey-Wicker amendment. The case was brought up against Kathleen Sebelius, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2009. The District Court for the District of Colombia concluded that the defendants reasonably interpreted the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to permit funding for human embryonic stem cell research because the research was not “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed.” This decision was upheld in 2013 by the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit.

Updates to Steam Cell Research

The major contention with stem cell research is due to the fact that to acquire stem cells a four or five-day old embryo must be destroyed. However, researchers may have found a way to make stem cells by purposely putting mature cells under stress. What could possibly be a huge breakthrough for stem cell research the medical team led by Dr. Charles Vacanti, director of the laboratory for Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, have tried to force mature cells into creating stem cells by placing them under extreme stress. One method that has been attempted is to put the cells in an acidic environment. This places the cells in a “natural” environment that they can react to. This advancement in stem cell research can allow more testing to be completed with a cheaper, safer, and faster method.

Another breakthrough in stem cell research is the ability to graph human cells from other muscle tissue in the body to help with the regeneration and recovery process after injuries. Until recently the so-called “satellite cells” were only successful in mice transplants. However, on September 22, 2015 researchers have successfully isolated human muscle stem cells and shown that the cells could robustly replicate and repair damaged muscles when grafted onto an injured site. This characterization of human muscle stem cells and the ability to transplant them into injured muscles has wide-ranging implications for patients suffering from muscle paralysis, whose damaged muscles have lost the ability to regenerate.

In conclusion, stem cell research is an area of medicine that is growing rapidly with extremely high upside. The scientific community has made huge leaps forward in recent years and in the future we may see stem cell research be able to detect cancer, repair damaged muscles, cure blindness, or even help cure paralysis. However, it still remains experimental in nearly all cases with plenty of room to grow. 

Anthony Lopez is currently a second-year law student at DePaul University College of Law. In addition to his work for the Mary and Michael Jaharis Health Law Institute at DePaul, Anthony also is the Wolters Kluwer Staff Member and a Staff Writer for the DePaul E-Pulse.