Byline: Steve Curtis
Stem cells are the hot topic of our times. Excitement about their potential is matched only by the ethical and moral concerns surrounding their use.
So what are they, what can we do with them and just how soon can we realistically expect to do it?
When I was a child in the early 80s, I remember how the first Sinclair computers made a big impression on me. Nowadays, the old computers seem pretty risible. To someone for whom the memory of Clive Sinclair is so fresh, it's barely credible just how much data can now be squeezed onto a single chip or a single disk drive.
And yet, at that same time in my life, I first grasped how much genetic information can be stored in the human genome and it puts even the most modern computers to shame. Man's entire genetic blueprint has been engraved by the forces of nature, not just into the human body but into every nucleated cell in that body.
Awe isn't an easy emotion to feel in the modern world and yet in order to fully understand the miracles of DNA, one of the key concepts is to understand that an exact replica of the genome exists in every single cell.
What's more, the quality of that replica is so exact that we now believe, in principle, it is possible to reassemble an entire living breathing replica of your body using the design template contained within any one of those cells.
That replica would in effect be your own identical twin, and we could call that creature a clone.
The social implications of genetic engineering was accurately prophesied by the English author Aldous Huxley in the 1930s. We can get some insight into just how farsighted Huxley was by remembering that it's only being in the last two decades that scientists have begun to understand how Huxley's ideas could be achieved.
At the same time, we must also remember that Brave New World is an obvious attempt to describe a dystopia. Not only did Huxley anticipate a new technology, but he also anticipated many of the moral and ethical dilemmas that would come with it.
Today, these very same ethical questions are being asked not just in a work of fiction but in the very research laboratories that are seeking to save us from modern illness.
For some of the scientists working on stem cell research, these questions merely represent an obstacle to progress. Stem cell research is an issue that manages to challenge just about all our views on medical ethics. In the near future, the progress of stem cell science will determine our ability to treat many of the key illnesses of the 21st century.
All around the world, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on stem cell research and desperate patients and their families are praying for success. So what are stem cells and how can we use them to our advantage?
All of us start off as a single cell. That cell is a fertilised egg and it contains the potential to multiply and reproduce every single tissue in your body.
However, the cell divides rapidly and pretty soon the emerging embryo consists of distinct layers of tissue.
Cells within each layer have the potential to develop into a sub group of tissues but they have already lost the ability to form any tissue. In a subtle way, these cells have become specialised. By the time you leave secondary school, many cells have become so specialised that they will retain their special function for the rest of your life. At the same time, these special cells have lost the ability to divide and reproduce.
They may be neurons in the brain or spinal cord or myocardial muscle cells that enable the heart to keep beating. In short, they usually represent organs that are crucial to life and if these tissues are damaged by disease or injury they will find themselves completely unable to divide and repair themselves.
This is part of the reason why patients with wasting diseases in such tissues as the brain are so impossible to treat. …