Cell plasticity refers to the ability of some cells, most notably stem cells, to take on the characteristics of other cells in an organism. This ability can be very useful when treating diseases; scientists are researching its uses and limitations. Stem cell research is controversial because aborted fetuses can be used to provide stem cells for transplant.
What is Cell Plasticity?
Cell plasticity refers to the ability of cells to take on characteristics of cells elsewhere in the body. For example, bone marrow stem cells that are transplanted elsewhere can change into lung or liver cells. This ability might be useful in the treatment of medical conditions involving damage to internal organs; scientists are researching whether stem cells can be used to regenerate organ tissue.
What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are a type of cell found in both children and adults that can renew itself. In addition, stem cells are unspecialized in their original form. They do not appear to serve any particular purpose. Stem cells have the property of plasticity; they can take on the characteristics of other cells in the body. In developing embryos, these cells are vital for growth, as the entire body is generated from stem cells. In adults, stem cells are commonly found in bone marrow, where they replace other cells that have died or weakened as a result of aging or activity.
Plasticity and Medicine
Plasticity offers the possibility of new treatments for diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Scientists theorize that stem cells could be stimulated to repair diseased tissue in the heart, lungs or other vital organs. As of 2010, this type of medicine, known as cell therapy, is still in the early stages of research and years away from being used.
Plasticity and Embryos
Embyros are rich in stem cells; cell plasticity is needed for an organism to develop internal organs, skin, hands, feet and so on. Scientists discovered that they could stimulate stem cells in mice embryos in 1981; in 1998, researchers grew human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory for the first time.
Somatic Stem Cells
Somatic stem cells are stem cells taken from the adult body. These cells are generally found in specific organs and can be stimulated to replicate the tissues of those organs. Somatic stem cells are used in the body to replace cells that are worn out in particular organs.
Research on the topic of cell plasticity is often controversial. To study embryonic cell plasticity, scientists must generate embryonic cells. Donated eggs are often fertilized in the lab for this purpose. Not only do people who believe that life begins at conception have doubts about the morality of this procedure, there are ethical questions surrounding the issue of experimenting with human genes.