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What Are Embryonic Stem Cells? How Are They Harvested? 5 Questions

Embryonic stem-cell research is one of the most volatile topics in modern-day science. Proponents on both sides argue passionately for their point of view. In fact, we featured such a debate between two experts here.

But what are the basics? What are embryonic stem cells? Where do researchers get them? Here, get the answers to your questions—the facts you need to form or strengthen your own opinions.

Q: What are stem cells?

A: A stem cell is not yet a specific type of cell. It’s kind of in waiting. Scientists conduct research on both adult and embryonic stem cells, hoping to find therapies for cancer, paralysis and other problems.

Q: What's the difference between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells?
A: We all have adult stem cells inside us. There are different types. Each can become only specific things. For example, certain ones in our bone marrow can become any type of blood cell but not, say, a bladder cell. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, are what we all start out as. They can become any kind of cell. At least, that’s how things work in the body. The lab may be a different story.

Q: Where do researchers get embryonic stem cells?
In-vitro fertilization often results in extra fertilized eggs a couple can’t use. Some choose to donate them for research.

Scientists take one of these fertilized eggs and grow it into a five-day-old blastocyst. (In normal reproduction, the blastocyst is the form that, if everything goes well, implants in the uterus.) Inside the blastocyst are stem cells—what would become the fetus.

Q: What is a stem-cell line? How are embryonic stem cells harvested?
Scientists remove the stem cells from the blastocyst and encourage them to grow. Then, ideally, they’re able to separate those cells and grow more, creating what’s called a stem-cell line.

Q: How is embryonic stem-cell research funded?
The United States government currently funds research with a limited number of stem-cell lines. Private and state funding are not restricted to these particular lines. Some medical charities fund embryonic stem-cell research, for example. (If you want to know where your favorite charity stands, ask for a position statement.)

Want to know more about the controversy surrounding embryonic stem-cell research? Click here to read our debate, and to share your opinion.


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Last updated and/or approved: August 2010. Original article appeared in November/December 2008 former print magazine. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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