Stem cells have the potential to provide new and more effective treatments for diabetes, heart disease, genetic diseases, neurological diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, and even cancer; to repair debilitating injuries, such as spinal cord damage; to restore lost function, such as our sense of sight, hearing, smell, and touch, even limbs lost in combat. Already they have enabled blind mice to see, paralyzed rats to walk, and monkeys suffering from severe Parkinson's disease to show dramatic improvement in their symptoms. Stem cells could alter the way we look and feel, whether we wish to restore hair to our bald heads or to counteract the effects of aging on our skin, bones, and cartilage. In the eyes of enthusiasts, stem cells represent the best pathway toward the elusive fountain of youth, and not just for athletes.
Because so much of human disease is genetic in origin, and because stem cells loom larger all the time in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease, stem cells will change the practice of medicine forever. The fields of stem cell biology and genomics are poised to reveal your health risks long before disease strikes and be able to take steps to minimize those risks. If disease strikes, treatment will be tailored to your unique genetic makeup and biochemistry. The code used by your stem cells to build you from the ground up will be available for tissue renovation or replacement due to disease, injury, or aging.
As the age-old dream of regeneration is being animated by stem cell research, scientists and bioengineers are re-creating components of the body's various systems from raw materials that exist within. These lab-created components -- a lymph node, a nerve bundle, a heart valve -- are invaluable for understanding human development as well as for refining regenerative medicine and designing biologically-based drugs. If the immune system, for instance, can be re-created piecemeal outside of the body and plumbed for its secrets of defense against disease and infection, stem cells indeed will have made a momentous contribution to human knowledge. Lab-recreated organs such as skin, bladders, and windpipes are already being used in patients, with bioartificial hearts, lungs, kidneys, livers, and intestine on the horizon, as we will see.
Yet depending on who you are and perhaps where you live, stem cell research can be seen as a means for preserving life or taking it. It can be seen as generating economic competitiveness or a moral decline, sustaining scientific prestige or the rise of amoral elites, ensuring personal freedom or bondage. It is both the agent of health and a widening avenue in the bioweapons arms race. It is imperative that we, as global citizens, understand the stem cell's awesome potential for life and death.
Excerpted from The Stem Cell Dilemma: The Scientific Breakthroughs, Ethical Concerns, Political Tensions, and Hope Surrounding Stem Cell Research (Arcade Publishing)