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Stem cells hold medical promise

Stem cells are the most versatile of cells: cells capable of reproducing themselves and also of growing into different kinds of body tissue. Stem cells are found in embryos and umbilical cords. Reservoirs of specialized stem cells also exist within our bodies, where they wait for the signal to go into action, repairing or replacing tissues damaged by age, injury or disease.

When someone cuts a finger, stem cells kick in to make new skin. They are also the reason injured lizards can grow new body parts.

If these building blocks of life can be controlled, they hold out the promise of cures for a variety of debilitating diseases, possibly within the next 10 years. Researchers hope stem cells will provide cures for diseases caused by cell failure and for repairing tissues that do not repair themselves. Heart damage, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, bone marrow disease and diabetes are among diseases named in connection with stem cell research. Some researchers also hope that stem cells might eventually be prompted to make new organs for transplant — organs that might not be rejected by the body.

Scientists say stem cell research may also hold the key to slowing down the aging process. Among dramatic recent breakthroughs in stem cell research, scientists have learned to rejuvenate telomeres, regulators that shut off stem cell division, a major factor in aging.

Researchers are working at stimulating stem cells into growth in the laboratory and learning how to direct them to diseased or damaged parts of the body. A major challenge is how to get the beneficial cells to their intended destinations without triggering immunities or other potentially serious side effects. Another is how to signal the cells to “turn on” and do what researchers want them to do once they get where they’re supposed to go. Still another is how to prevent the reproducing cells from turning into malignancies.

Excerpted from “Stem cells hold promise of cures” by Pamela Schaeffer, published in NCR’s special report on human reproduction and ethics, Oct. 22, 1999. Articles are available on NCR’s Web site, www.natcath.org. Click on NCR Online and Search NCR. Use keywords “human destiny.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000