Stem Cellular Connections

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Stem cells, schtem shells. They’re the biggest news in science, near magic in their healing powers, but what in mitochondria’s name are they?

Here are some fast facts on the sweetest cells in your body.

Your Body’s Repair Kit: Most cells have one purpose, like they’re for your liver or your ear wax or skin. Stem cells have the ability to turn into whatever kind of cell they want to be. In healthy adults they function as sort of an internal repair kit, replenishing other cells after being weakened by disease or injury. Scientists can manipulate stem cells in the lab, generating healthy tissue to treat ailments like a crushed spinal cord, a weak heart or lungs, or even nerves affected by Parkinson’s.

Stem Cell Wars:
Stem cells found in embryos are the most powerful kind, since they are “pluripotent,” which means they can become almost any kind of cell in your body. The anti-abortion movement thinks that using cells from embryos, even those developed in a lab, is the same as having an abortion, since the clump of cells could theoretically grow into a person.

First Real Test: The FDA has ok’d the first ever test of human embryonic stem cells to treat spinal cord injury.  Geron Corp., of California, will use cells from embryos leftover from discarded in-vitro procedures, which allows them to skirt the controversy (sort of), since those cells would have been destroyed anyway. The idea is to regrow nerve tissue by injecting stem cells into people with crushed cords. If it works, these people may walk again.

World Wide Cells:
While stem cell research in the USA was slowed by Bush Administration restrictions, other countries have moved ahead briskly in the last eight years:

  • the U.K. is at the forefront of research, most recently experimenting with making hybrid human-animal embryos, or “chimeras.”
  • in 2007, Japanese researchers, with the help of some Americans, found that they could alter human skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells. Human skin would, obviously, be a way less controversial source of stem cells than embryos.
  • in India you can make a fortune by running a “stem cell bank,” where people can store their own cells to use later when they get sick.

Cell-ebs: Stem Cell research has many starry advocates, including:

  • Michael J. Fox, who was famously told by Rush Limbaugh that he was exaggerating the symptoms of his very real Parkinson’s;
  • Nancy Reagan, who pissed off some Republicans by supporting research that might have helped Alzheimer’s-afflicted Ron;
  • Christopher Reeve, who became a real-life Superman, advocating for expanded stem cell research after being paralyzed in a 1995 horseback riding accident.

* * *

Word Up:

Chimeras: hybrid cells made by joining human and animal cells

Pluripotency: having more than one possible outcome; in biology, it’s the ability of a cell to become almost any kind of other cell

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