Stem cell research is a trove for scientists trying to find revolutionary ways to treat a variety of diseases. It is the solution regenerative medical professionals have been searching for all along, evolving every day to encompass more treatments and cure even more illnesses.
Stem cells are raw cells found within the human body from which all other cells with specialised functions are generated. In proper experimental conditions, these stem cells can be divided to create daughter cells. These daughter cells can either be new stem cells themselves, by way of self-renewal, or end up being functional cells such as blood cells or brain cells.
Observing these stem cells has provided researchers with crucial data concerning the origins of diseases. In fact, studying these young functional cells made it possible to observe a cell from birth to maturity, and bring us one step closer to pinpointing the start of diseases and the definitive causes in various organs.
Furthermore, healthy generated stem cells can be used to replace diseased ones. Stem cells can be guided into becoming specific cells that can be used to regenerate and repair diseased or damaged tissues in patients. These stem cell therapies are available for people with spinal cord injuries, type1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, strokes, burns and even cancer. Researchers continue to develop new ways in which stem cells can be conducive to better generative medicine approaches, to be eventually applied in transplants .
Stem cells are also used in the pursuit of pharmaceutical safety and drug testing. In fact, stem cells are being currently used in the first phase of drug testing for cardiac toxicity, and then more stem cells are programmed to acquire properties of the type of cells targeted by the drug, which then gauges its effectiveness. These tests are now being considered critical before moving on to clinical trials and testing the drugs on live subjects.
As the human body does not have an endless supply of stem cells to offer to the advancement of science, one has to wonder: Where do these stem cells come from?
Luckily, researchers have discovered several sources for stem cells:
- Embryonic stem cells: These stem cells come from embryos that are three to five days old. They are by far the most versatile and can thus be used both for regenerative and cell replacement purposes. Currently there is an ongoing debate about the moral and ethical repercussions of using embryonic stem cells, given that they’re extracted from human embryos. The compromise made states that embryonic stem cells created from embryos in vitro fertilisation can be used only when the embryo is no longer needed.
- Adult stem cells: These stem cells are found (in small numbers) in most adult tissues, such as bone marrow or fat. Compared with embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells have a more limited ability to produce various cells found in the body. Recent studies have proven that adult stem cells can be versatile, but not to the extent found in embryonic cells.
- Adult cells altered to have properties of embryonic stem cells: Scientists have successfully transformed regular adult cells into stem cells using genetic reprogramming. Through altering the genes in the adult cells, researchers can reprogram the cells to act similarly to that of embryonic stem cells. This new technique, if pursued, may reduce the risks of transplanting foreign stem cells and using other reprogrammed adult cells found in the same body. However, this remains to be fully tested.
- Perinatal stem cells: Researchers have discovered stem cells in amniotic fluid as well as within umbilical cord blood. These stem cells also have the ability to change into specialised cells when required. Studies into this area are still being conducted to understand these cells’ full potential.
So far, the use of stem cells in therapy has been relatively successful, considering the usual risks involved with transplants and immune system rejection. Scientists continue to make way in this field, which is unsurprising given the various ways it can revolutionise medicine and our understanding of pathology all together.
Oumayma, Consultant, Leyton France
Sandhya Pruthi, M.D., “Stem cells: What they are and what they do”, “Mayo Clinic Healthy Living”, ART-20048117, October 24th, 2018
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