Stem cells have an interesting history that has been somewhat tainted with debate and controversy. In the mid 1800s it was discovered that cells were basically the building blocks of life and that some cells had the ability to produce other cells.
Attempts were made to fertilise mammalian eggs outside of the human body and in the early 1900s, it was discovered that some cells had the ability to generate blood cells.
In 1968, the first bone marrow transplant was performed to successfully treat two siblings with severe combined immunodeficiency. Other key events in stem cell research include:
- 1978: Stem cells were discovered in human cord blood
- 1981: First in vitro stem cell line developed from mice
- 1988: Embryonic stem cell lines created from a hamster
- 1995: First embryonic stem cell line derived from a primate
- 1997: Cloned lamb from stem cells
- 1997: Leukaemia origin found as haematopoietic stem cell, indicating possible proof of cancer stem cells
In 1998, Thompson, from the University of Wisconsin, isolated cells from the inner cell mass of early embryos and developed the first embryonic stem cell lines. During that exact same year, Gearhart, from Johns Hopkins University, derived germ cells from cells in foetal gonad tissue; pluripotent stem cell lines were developed from both sources. Then, in 1999 and 2000, scientists discovered that manipulating adult mouse tissues could produce different cell types. This meant that cells from bone marrow could produce nerve or liver cells and cells in the brain could also yield other cell types. These discoveries were exciting for the field of stem cell research, with the promise of greater scientific control over stem cell differentiation and proliferation.
The unfortunate reality of this enormous breadth of information, however, is that scientists may fabricate studies and findings. This was the case in 2004 to 2005, when Hwang Woo-Suk, a Korean researcher, claimed to have produced human embryonic stem cell lines from unfertilised human eggs. The lines were eventually shown to be completely false and therefore fabricated, but the huge international scandal left the public doubtful and mistrusting of the scientific community.
More recently, in 2005, scientists at Kingston University in England were purported to have found another category of stem cells. These were named cord blood embryonic-like stem cells, which originate in umbilical cord blood. It is suggested that these stem cells have the ability to differentiate into more cell types than adult stem cells, opening up greater possibilities for cell-based therapies. Then, in early 2007, researchers led by Dr. Anthony Atala claimed that a new type of stem cell had been isolated in amniotic fluid. This finding is particularly important because these stem cells could prove to be a viable alternative to the controversial use of embryonic stem cells.
Over the last few years, national policies and debate amongst the public as well as religious groups, government officials and scientists have led to various laws and procedures regarding stem cell harvesting, development and treatment for research or disease purposes. The goals of such policies are to safeguard the public from unethical stem cell research and use while still supporting new advancements in the field.
Stem cell research has now progressed dramatically and there are countless research studies published each year in scientific journals. Adult stem cells are already being used to treat many conditions such as heart disease and leukaemia. Researchers still have a long way to go before they completely control the regulation of stem cells. The potential is overwhelmingly positive and with continued support and research, scientists will ideally be able to harness the full power of stem cells to Treat Diseases that you or a loved one may suffer from one day.