orcenturies, scientists haveknown that certain animalscan regenerate missing partsof their bodies.
Humans actuallyshare this ability with animals like thestarfish and the newt. Although we can’t replace amissing leg or a finger, our bodies areconstantly regenerating blood, skin,and other tissues. The identity of the powerful cells that allow usto regenerate some tissues wasfirst revealed when experimentswith bone marrow in the 1950sestablished the existence of
in our bodies and led to the develop-ment of bone marrow transplantation, a therapynow widely used in medicine. This discovery raisedhope in the medical potential of regeneration. Forthe first time in history, it became possible for physi-cians to regenerate a damaged tissue with a newsupply of healthy cells by drawing on the uniqueability of stem cells to create many of thebody’s specialized cell types.Once they had recognized the medicalpotential of regeneration through the suc-cess of bone marrow transplants, scientistssought to identify similar cells within theembryo. Early studies of human development haddemonstrated that the cells of the embryo werecapable of producing every cell type in the humanbody. Scientists were able to extract embryonic stemcells from mice in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1998that a team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin–Madison became the first group to iso-late human embryonic stem cells and keep themalive in the laboratory. The team knew that they hadin fact isolated stem cells because the cells couldremain unspecialized for long periods of time, yetmaintained the ability to transform into a vari-ety of specialized cell types, including nerve,gut, muscle, bone, and cartilage cells.Stem cell research is being pursued in the hopeof achieving major medical breakthroughs.Scientists are striving to create therapiesthat rebuild or replace damaged cells withtissues grown from stem cells and offerhope to people suffering from cancer, dia-betes, cardiovascular disease, spinal-cordinjuries, and many other disorders. Both adultand embryonic stem cells may also provide a routefor scientists to develop valuable new methods of drug discovery and testing. They are also powerfultools for doing the research that leads to a betterunderstanding of the basic biology of the humanbody. By drawing on expert scientists,doctors, bioethicists, and others, the NationalAcademies have examined the potential of stemcell technologies for medicine and provided a forumfor discussing the ethical implications and moraldilemmas of stem cell research.