Stem cell research: The debate over embryonic and adult …

Back to lesson plans archive September 10, 2004

By Lisa Prososki, a former middle and high school teacher

Biology, General Science, Ethics

Two to three 50-minute class periods plus additional time for presentations and extension activities

Students will:

Stem cells are universal cells that have the ability to develop into specialized types of tissues that can then be used throughout the body to treat diseases or injuries. Stem Cell Research is a topic embroiled in much controversy. Scientists are hopeful that one day stem cells will be used to grow new organs such as kidneys or spinal cords as well as different types of tissues such as nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. The controversy sparked by the use of stem cells and research in this area comes from the fact that many people support the use of embryonic stem cells. These cells are taken from embryos that are just days old. As a result of this, the embryo, which is a developing human life, is destroyed. Many people feel it is immoral and unethical to destroy embryos for the sake of science. To further the debate, while these cells are easily cultured, replicate quickly, and have a relatively long life, embryonic stem cells have not yet been successfully used to provide any kind of therapy for humans and pose risks such as tumor growth and rejection by the body.

On the other side of the issue is the use of adult stem cells for research. Adult stem cells are available from a variety of sources including blood from the umbilical cord, the placenta, bone marrow, and even human fat. However, they are relatively hard to find and extract from some of these sources and do not always thrive well when cultured. In addition, they may have some limitations in the type of tissues they are able to form. For many years, adult stem cells have been used to provide a number of different therapies to people with a relatively high rate of success. Recent research has shown that adult stem cells taken from one area of the body are able to regenerate and form tissues of a different kind. In addition to the proven therapies and research, the use of adult stem cells from a patients own body decreases the risk of rejection because the cells are not seen as foreign invaders.

All in all, many scientists believe that the use of adult stem cells should be the primary focus of stem cell research based on past success, lower chances of patient rejection, and the idea that adult stem cell research does not spark the moral, ethical, and political debate seen so frequently when the use of embryonic stem cells is considered.

Imagine you live in a time and place where people no longer suffer from diseases like Parkinsons, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, organ failure, or Alzheimers. Imagine that spinal cords can be replaced and that most forms of paralysis have been eliminated. Imagine that nerves, muscles, and even badly burned skin can be regenerated and replaced. Now imagine that the source of this technology comes from something that cant be seen with the human eye. While it might sound like space-age technology that we see in science fiction books and movies, imagine that it could actually be a reality.

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Stem cell research: The debate over embryonic and adult ...

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