What are stem cells?
Stem cells are the undifferentiated cells that can turn into specialized cells. Also, they are able to divide and produce even more stem tissue. They are found in a few microscopic organisms, as well as in mammals.
For instance, mammals have two kinds of stem cells – the embryonic ones and the adult cells. The embryonic cells are not identical to adult stems, at least not in mammals. Adult stem cells exist in a whole variety of tissues.
They are also used for bodily repair due to their increased division abilities. Also, they play quite a big role in maintaining homeostasis and any kind of equilibrium in the body. For instance, they regulate the regenerative processes for various organs, such as the skin, the intestines or the blood.
One can get adult stem cells from three main known sources. One can find them in the bone marrow, which requires extraction. This means that the doctors have to dig into the bone. Usually, the bone that is used is the femur.
One can also find such tissues in the fat stores. Adipose tissue can be extracted through a process called liposuction.
Blood is also a good source of adult stem cells. The required process is called ‘apheresis’. In apheresis, the blood is drawn from the donor and passed through a device that filters the blood.
Blood filtering consists of taking the actual stem cells and leaving the rest of the blood for the donor. The donor can then choose whether or not he wants his blood back. Depending on the amount he is willing to donate, he can either choose to receive his blood back or not.
What other rare sources of stem cells are there?
Stems cells can also be taken from the tissue that is surrounding / in the umbilical cord. The process needs to be done immediately after birth. Harvesting adult stem cells is actually a process that poses very little risk.
By definition, these cells are actually produced by your own body. This means that taking a few of them will not pose any real risk, as long as you don’t take too many. Due to their regenerative properties, they are amazingly rare, but the body never runs out of them.
Bone marrow transplants currently use adult stem cells. They can either be artificially grown then turned into stem cells, or they can be found inside the body too.
Most of these cells differentiate when they reach a certain age. When they reach maturity, they can either turn into the muscular cells or nerves. But there are other kinds of tissues they can turn into. However, the most needed tissues are these two.
Embryonic stem cells can also be obtained through a difficult process caller nuclear transfer. The research for these kinds of cells has initially been ignited by Ernest McCulloch and James Till. These 2 types of research have conducted plenty of projects at the University of Toronto in the year 1960.
Is there an even easier way to harvest stem cells?
Researchers have managed to properly create rare embryos in the lab. They are made of both human AND pig tissues. This type of being, or creature if you prefer, is called a ‘chimera’. We are hoping that these ‘creatures’ will actually be the future of organ transplant.
It is definitely possible to realize small farms in which such animals can grow. However, it may not be considered ethical by some people. Even though the progress that such implementation could bring, it does not feel moral to some people. Opinions differ. However, there are a few who say that this is what eugenics was trying to achieve – and it failed miserably.
But do not lose your hope just yet. The general consensus is that we shall do a rather immoral thing in order to save a few lives. In fact, there are about 25 to 30 people dying on waiting lists all over the world. Daily. We must consider this option.
The greater good is just… better. And even though some activists may say that human lives are not actually more important than animal lives, I believe they are. No offense, but I would rather save a human than a pig.
Now that we are done talking about ethics, let’s get to real science. The team of researchers has managed to combine human stem cells with pig DNA inside a pig embryo cell. The process was also made through the CRISPR gene tool. The tool consists of inserting the human cells inside the pig embryo and allowing it to take root inside the pig’s tissue.
Researchers were trying to grow a human pancreas inside the pig, and they have finally succeeded in doing so.
How did they do it?
The human cells are usually ‘out-competed’ by the pig cells since they are the pig’s own cells. This can even happen in humans too. This is why some transplants may not even work – the body has rejected the organ.
The researchers have allowed the pig and human cells to mature. It took them 28 days to reach that stage. After the 28 days, they found that they did not need to terminate the process. This time, the pig’s tissue had actually accommodated the human tissue. There was an even distribution of human cells among pig cells.
Scientists hope that the pancreas will continue developing properly. Also, they hope that the pancreas will only be made out of human cells; otherwise, a transplant would be fairly impossible.
In other words, the researchers are hoping that one day that can hold the little pigs in incubators. It would be like in an abattoir; however, in this case, the pigs are actually going to be used for an even greater cause.
There would be no side effects whatsoever. However, we cannot know for sure until the first clinical trials show up. And until then we will have a long road. Patience is advised.
The morality behind it
However, most of the SF dystopias have been warning us about such things for ages. Just because we can, should we? Is it moral to do so?
The same questions are in fact asked over and over again, especially when scientists actually manage to solve an important problem like this. The process of finding the first steps towards improvement will always have obstacles in front of it.
However, the general consensus is that this is not immoral. Pigs are always going to be slaughtered. The difference between slaughter and this kind of science is that here, pigs will not suffer. The process is actually painless.
Also, humans will not be able to receive any kind of disease from pigs. This has been proven numerous times by Harvard scientists, thanks to our ability to edit genes.
This is a huge leap for mankind. One day, we will be able to save thousands of lives a day thanks to this invention. The young scientists have managed to have their names written in history.
One day, organ donors will no longer be necessary. Until then, there is still a lot to work on, but it’s definitely possible in the next 20 years. One day, pigs will not be used for jerky only.
One day, medicine will save more lives than anything ever will.