Stem Cells: Little Cells, Big Possibilities

The future of medicine is seriously exciting and Phillippe has some pretty exciting planet-saving ideas. Image: Shutterstock

Congratulations to Philippe Mouawad (year 7) for being runner up in the 2020 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing.

Year 7 student at Georges River Grammar School, Philippe Mouawad, explores stem cells as a solution to a number of the world’s problems in his entry, awarded runner-up in the UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing, under the 2020 theme The Big Ideas Saving the Planet.

“Philippe deftly weaves the story of his brother’s disability into a larger narrative of medical research,” says one of the 2020 judges, science writer and editor Sara Phillips. “The result is an essay that is personal, poignant, heartfelt, fascinating and future-looking.”

Read Philippe’s full essay below.

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2020 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing runner-up essay

Today’s world is faced with a multitude of large-scale issues, from climate change and pollution, to difficulties in maintaining safe food production, to health issues like cancer and diabetes. Zooming in to my small world, the greatest problem my family and I face is the hearing disability of my older brother, who must navigate the world with damaged nerve and hair cells in his ear. His hearing loss occurred from an illness called Pneumococcal meningitis, where bacteria entered his brain, destroying these hair cells. My brother’s battle scars are in the form of a Cochlear implant, a machine he will need to wear on his ear for the rest of his life. Over the years, my family and I have been interested in ways to solve this problem. The solution we have found? Stem cells, which are cells that have the potential to regenerate my brother’s hearing. But as I researched further on stem cells, I realised they are not limited to solving hearing loss. Our world’s greatest problems, like pollution and diabetes, may benefit from stem cell research too. 

Stem cells are a type of cell that are not yet specialised, like students before they choose a career. Stem cells have high capabilities for self-renewal and replication, much more than their non-stem cell counterparts. This means they can make more of themselves fairly easily and can change into any of the specialised cells in our body. At a given moment in our bodies, stem cells are working, graduating into more specialised roles as we shed cells, grow new intestinal tissue, repair cuts and scratches and more. Hidden in these properties is potential that scientists have begun to harness in order to find world solutions. 

The Stanford Initiative to Cure Hearing Loss is one example of a team who is using the properties of stem cells to solve a world issue. These researchers have been able to generate hair cells for the ear from stem cells. The hair cells in the inner ear are a crucial part of hearing. The goal of these scientists is to develop a treatment to deafness that involves restoring lost hair cells, like in my brother’s case. The stem cells they use can even come from a person’s own skin, where skin cells are manipulated genetically and reverted to stem cells, ready to graduate into anything the scientist wishes. This solution is promising. It could mean that, potentially one day, my brother will hear birds chirping in the morning, or the clutter of cutlery at dinner, the exact same way I do. 

Despite the fact that stem cell use has great potential, there remains some challenges around its integration into our society. The main concerns are ethical eg “what if we make clones?” Image: Shutterstock

The potential of stem cells as solutions goes even further. This concept of growing new biological tissue from unspecialised cells can be used to make organs for transplants, solving the problem of low organ supplies. We can use stem cells to grow new blood cells for leukaemia sufferers whose existing blood cells are unhealthy and prone to cancer. Stem cells can also be tools in drug testing, sometimes replacing animals and humans and the ethical qualms of testing on them. For example, stem cells can be made into nerve cells to test drugs targeting the nervous system. 

Outside the medical space, stem cells remain relevant, playing a role in solutions for agriculture and the environment. It is only logical to ask that, if we can make new cells and organs, can’t we make new crops too? The University of Melbourne even proposed using stem cells to grow meat that is sustainable, not prone to harmful agricultural toxins and not requiring a lot of land or resources. Meanwhile, scientists studying pollution proposed using stem cells to test the effects of harmful pollutants, which could not otherwise be tested. This gives invaluable information about pollution, bringing us one step closer to its solution. 

Despite the fact that stem cell use has great potential, there remains some challenges around its integration into our society. The main concerns are ethical. Some types of stem cells are acquired from destroyed human embryos, which some believe to be immoral. Other people worry that making human tissue gives us too much power. What if we make clones? Where does it end? 

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I don’t know the answers to these complex questions. But I have realised that hidden in the pristine labs of stem cell research are an endless array of solutions to world issues, waiting to be explored. These stem cell driven solutions may change the future of our planet. I also know that stem cells hold the key to solving my world problem, that of my brother’s happiness, of his hearing. Stem cells can change his future too. That’s why I’ll continue to advocate for research into these funny little cells, that can solve illness, hunger and pollution, without even graduating cell school. 

For the 2020 UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing we asked Australian high school students to enter 800-word essays responding to the 2020 theme of saving the planet, identifying and discussing a problem in the world that has yet to be solved by contemporary science and technology.

Read the other winning entries:

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Author: STEM Contributor

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