Our bodies are the ultimate factory. Every cell has its specific job to do, and is shaped to do that job perfectly. The fate of each cell is determined during the embryo stage, and then cannot be changed.
However, cutting-edge research made a major discovery for modern science: there are these wonderful cells that exist called stem cells. These cells have the ability to become any type of cell because they are not specialised.
Scientists were hugely excited by their discovery because they can be used to repair damaged organs, bones or cartilage. They could also be used to help treat diseases, such as by making new brain cells to treat people with Parkinson’s disease. Or they could be used to repair damaged immune systems, and even reverse paralysis or regrow lost limbs. The discovery of stem cells is huge for modern medicine, and could have a massive impact.
There are two types of stem cells in humans: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells are unspecialised cells that can develop into any type of cell. Adult stem cells are also unspecialised cells but whilst they can develop into many types of cell, unlike embryonic stem cells, they cannot develop into every type of cell.
Adult stem cells come from tissues such as bone marrow. As in the name, embryonic stem cells can be removed from unused embryos such as those left over from fertility treatments for example.
Whilst the discovery of stem cells offers huge potential for modern medicine, there are many social and ethical considerations that need to be taken into account. A lot of research was, and still is, needed to find out exactly how they work and how we can control them to do what we want; and not just grow uncontrollably.
Stem cells are already being used in treatments.
One big social and ethical debate around stem cells is therapeutic cloning. This is the concept of cloning a patient, growing an embryo from the cloned cells and then extracting stem cells from the embryo to grow the specific organ needed by the patient. The patient’s body would not reject this organ, as it is a made from the patient’s own cells.
Unspecialised stem cells also exist in plants and can develop into the cells of flowers, roots, or leaves. Unlike in animal cells, some plant cells do remain unspecialised and can then develop into any type of plant cell. The unspecialised plant cells group together into structures called meristems. Whereas animals stop growing in size when they are adults, plants do not. This is because meristems divide to produce cells thus enabling plants to continue to grow both in height and width throughout their life. They also produce cells that develop into flowers and leaves.
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