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Stem cells are cells in the body that have the potential to turn into anything, such as a skin cell, a liver cell, a brain cell, or a blood cell. Stem cells that turn into blood cells are called hematopoietic stem cells. These cells are capable of developing into the three types of blood cells:
- red blood cells that carry oxygen
- white blood cells that fight infection
- platelets that help blood to clot
Hematopoietic stem cells can be found in bone marrow (the spongy tissue inside bones), the bloodstream, or the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies.
A stem cell transplant (sometimes called a bone marrow transplant) can replenish a child's supply of healthy hematopoietic stem cells after they have been depleted. It's used to treat a wide range of diseases, including cancers like leukemia, lymphoma, neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor, and certain testicular or ovarian cancers; blood disorders; immune system diseases; and bone marrow syndromes.
Transplanted hematopoietic stem cells are put into the bloodstream through an intravenous (IV) line, much like a blood transfusion. Once in the body, they can produce healthy new blood and immune system cells.
- Autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplant. With this type of transplant, patients act as their own donor. That is, a child who is about to undergo cancer treatment will have his or her own stem cells removed (harvested) and frozen for later use. After the child receives chemotherapy and/or radiation, the stem cells are thawed and put back into the child's body.
This procedure may be done once or many times, depending on the need. Sometimes doctors will use extra-high doses of chemotherapy during treatment (to kill as many cancer cells as possible) if they know a patient will be getting a stem cell transplant soon after.
- Allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplant. With an allogeneic transplant, the stem cells come from a donor — often a sibling but sometimes another volunteer — whose cells are considered a "match" for the patient. The process of finding a match is called tissue typing (or HLA [human leukocyte antigen] typing). HLA is a protein on the surface of blood cells. Basically, the more "HLA markers" a child and the potential donor have in common, the greater the chance that the transplant will be successful.
Unlike with an autologous transplant, there is a risk of a child's body rejecting the donated cells. Sometimes, despite the donor being a good match, the transplant simply may not take. Other times, the donor cells can begin to make immune cells that attack the recipient's body. This condition is called graft-versus-host disease, and can be quite serious. Fortunately, most cases are successfully treated with steroids and other medications.
Sometimes, an upside of graft-versus-host disease is that the newly transplanted cells recognize the body's cancer cells as different or foreign, and actually work to fight them.
- Opponents of embryonic stem cell research compare the destruction of an embryo to an abortion. They believe that the embryo constitutes life because it has the potential to fully develop into a human being. Those against embryonic stem cell use believe that is it immoral and unethical to destroy one life to save another
- .By using stem cells and discarding the embryo, it is thought that human life is ultimately de-valued by this act and is paving a slippery slope for further scientific procedures that similarly de-value life. In particular, many religious groups who are adamantly pro-life have condemned embryonic stem cell research and all of its applications. Other arguments against embryonic stem cells cite the fact that adult stem cells are the ones currently being used in therapies and thus, there is no need to even venture into embryonic stem cell territory
- Another argument for embryonic stem cell research is that the embryos are leftover from in-vitro fertilisation and would otherwise be destroyed, so they should instead be put to greater use. Even further down the line in development is the belief that those embryos from legal abortions, which have already been destroyed, would be better used to advance human health rather than simply discarded.
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