Stem Cell Research and Health Education

By Eve, David J.; Marty, Phillip J. et al. | American Journal of Health Education, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Stem Cell Research and Health Education


Eve, David J., Marty, Phillip J., McDermott, Robert J., Klasko, Stephen K., Sanberg, Paul R., American Journal of Health Education


ABSTRACT

Stem cells are being touted as the greatest discovery for the potential treatment of a myriad of diseases in the new millennium, but there is still much research to be done before it will be known whether they can live up to this description. There is also an ethical debate over the production of one of the most valuable types of stem cell: the embryonic form. Consequently, there is public confusion over the benefits currently being derived from the use of stem cells and what can potentially be expected from their use in the future. The health educator's role is to give an unbiased account of the current state of stem cell research. This paper provides the groundwork by discussing the types of cells currently identified, their potential use, and some of the political and ethical pitfalls resulting from such use.

INTRODUCTION

Stem cells are believed to be one of the greatest untapped resources currently available for the prevention and treatment of many diseases. Inasmuch as current knowledge of stem cells is a combination of scientific reality and cautious speculation, considerable research is required to identify the true, long-term potential for medical advances from these cells. As health resources professionals, communicators, and advocates, (1) health educators are in a position to advance the public dialogue about this promising technology. This article offers a general overview of stem cells, their potential for extending life and improving its overall quality, and some thoughts on the role of health educators with regard to professional and lay audiences.

WHAT ARE STEM CELLS?

Stem cells are template cells found throughout the body that can grow to become cells with specialized functions. (2-6) These cells replicate to generate "offspring" cells that can be either stem cells (and hence, self-renewing) or specialized cells (i.e., differentiated cells) that play a specific role--becoming blood, bone, brain, or skin cells, among others. (7) Stem cells, therefore, have the potential to act as repair systems for replacement of damaged cells. (2-6) The field in which a great deal of research is currently underway to determine the use of stems cells in the treatment of diseases and injuries is called "regenerative medicine." Under "normal" conditions stem cells continue to replicate until they receive a signal to differentiate into a specific cell type. (8) When stem cells receive such a signal they first become progenitor cells, and later, the final mature cell type. Determination of the different signals that cause the stem cell to become a specific type rather than just continue to replicate is important (and, in some cases, it is the absence rather than the presence of a signal that is the important factor). (8) The ability of stem cells from one area to differentiate into another completely different type is known as plasticity, and embryonic stem cells appear to be the "most plastic" of the four types discussed below. (2-6)

Stem cells are described as being of a specific cell line, dependent on the characteristics and location of the original template cells from which all future offspring cells have grown (reflecting the self-renewing capability of the cells). Assuming that no contamination of the cell line occurs as a result of mutations or infections, and no differentiating triggers occur, the cell lines could potentially grow ad infinitum. (2)

DIFFERENT TYPES OF STEM CELLS

There are several types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells, fetal stem cells, adult stem cells, embryonic germ cells, and amniotic and umbilical cord stem cells. These stem cell varieties and their distinct properties are discussed below.

Embryonic and Fetal Stem Cells

The development of an organism can be compartmentalized into several stages. (9) Following the union of the egg and sperm, the initial four to five days from conception are characterized by a period of rapid cell division. …

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