Stem cells are the body’s building blocks. They create the other types of cells in the body, morphing from their original stem cell state into tissue-specific cells such as heart, skin, liver and brain cells. They exist in embryos, directing the initial stages of human development, but they also reside in adult tissues and can be “activated” to replicate into alternative cell types when needed.
Nobel Prize winner E. Donnall Thomas first used stem cells clinically to treat acute leukemia via bone marrow transplantation in the 1950s. Through his work and the research that followed, science has verified the value of stem cells, using their potency and ability to self replicate for advantages that span the breadth of modern healthcare. Here are some of the ways stem cells could potentially be used to improve your health or that of someone you love:
Stem cells are the backbone of regenerative medicine, with stem cell therapy playing the leading role in transplantation science. Indeed, the very nature of stem cells means they are able to “transform” into other types of cells. It’s a feature unlike any other, granting stem cells the unique ability to replace damaged, decaying and/or diseased cells in multiple tissues of the body when needed. In addition to continued clinical use of bone marrow transplants to treat blood cancers and other blood disorders, stem cell therapies have been researched and tested for other purposes, including the treatment of macular degeneration and many orthopedic conditions. For instance, stem cells have been shown to alleviate symptoms of age-related eye disease and also back pain, serving as a herniated disc surgery alternative and providing options for less invasive treatments for other degenerative soft tissue problems.
Often considered a part of regenerative medicine, tissue engineering involves the fashioning of living tissue out of stem cells, synthetic or biological scaffolds and various growth factors. But whereas regenerative medicine seeks to harness the body’s own natural defenses to create new tissue, “tissue engineering focuses on developing tissue outside of the body.” Currently, engineered tissue is mostly used for research, providing realistic and easily acquired tissue samples for experimentation and drug testing. It is hoped, though, that one day it will be able to provide functional tissues for transplantation of whole organs.
Research and Testing
There’s little doubt that the clinical implications of stem cells are huge, but their contribution to research cannot be overlooked. Stem cells bolster our theoretical understanding of science by providing us with evidence of how single cells develop into multicelled tissues. This helps researchers better understand and treat disease. Tissue samples derived from stem cells are also being used to replace those usually obtained from animal and human donors, thereby speeding up many research processes and cutting costs. Likewise, stem cells help to fast track the human testing of drugs. Rather than test new chemical compounds on animals, a prerequisite to human trials that can be expensive and ultimately ineffective (since there’s no guarantee that a drug that is safe for an animal will also be safe for a human), scientists can expose them to embryonic stem cells to see the effects. This provides a better indication of how the drug will ultimately react in clinical trials and gives all of us access to better treatments in the future!