Stem cells are a source of fascination for many and controversy for others. But there is no denying that they show an incredible amount of promise in addressing a wide range of illnesses and conditions. Here’s some information on what stem cells are, as well as a few of the more amazing recent advances in the field of stem cell research.
What are Stem Cells?
There are two main kinds of stem cells – those found in embryos and those found in adults. Embryonic cells have not yet become specialized, meaning they haven’t changed into a cell with a specific function, such as a nerve, blood or bone cell. Once they become specialized, they cannot be changed. But many scientists, as well as religious and political leaders, believe harvesting embryonic stem cells is unethical.
There are, however, some cells that remain unspecialized as the body develops. These are known as “adult” stem cells. When a part of the body suffers some sort of trauma, these cells are dispatched to repair the damage.1 Adult stem cells are typically found in the bone marrow as well as the intestines, but they are not as prevalent in other areas of the body.
Stem cell research has exploded in recent years as scientists continue to develop new ways they can benefit patients suffering from many different health issues. These are just some of the more recent findings.
Researchers with the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center in Maywood, IL are working with adult stem cells to see if they can help extend the lifespan of people suffering from blood-related cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia. Adult stem cells from bone marrow have been used for several years in transplants. The goal of the researchers is to see how they can help people live longer by preserving healthy blood cells, which are often destroyed during chemotherapy sessions.2
In one particular study, Cardinal Bernardin researchers are looking into how stem cells from umbilical cords (which are donated by the parents of newborn children and then frozen) can be multiplied in a lab. The number of cells that can be typically harvested from an umbilical cord is usually not high enough to be effective in treating adults. The greater the number of umbilical cord cells that can be used, according to the researchers, the less vulnerable patients will be to bleeding as well as infections.
Hemophilia is a condition where a person’s blood doesn’t clot properly. Researchers at the St. Louis University School of Medicine are conducting studies involving stem cells taken from hemophiliacs. The researchers remove mutated genes from those cells and replace them with normal genes. The hope is that these gene-corrected cells can be reintroduced to the patient’s body so that blood will once again clot normally.3
Regulation of Behavioral and Physiological Functions
Scientists with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, in conjunction with researchers in the U.S., Japan and Canada, announced in 2015 that they had devised ways to use stem cells that could ultimately help regulate many of the body’s basic functions.4
Their work focused on replicating neurons found in an area of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which controls several different bodily functions. Previously, research into the hypothalamus has been extremely limited because scientists haven’t been able to observe live cells.
By using stem cells to generate neurons in the lab that replicate those found in the hypothalamus, researchers believe they can help regulate issues such as high blood pressure and obesity, as well as disorders that affect mood, sleep and the ability to interact socially. The researchers said that the ability to produce these neurons could ultimately improve treatments for a wide variety of conditions.
Controlling Stem Cells
Some of the most exciting research being performed involves actually controlling how stem cells turn into specialized cells. The goal is for scientists to ultimately be able to dictate the “differentiation” process, whereby a stem cell turns into a cell that helps to form a specific organ or tissue.5
If researchers are successful, they could, for instance, direct embryonic stem cells to turn into cells that produce insulin. Doctors could then implant those cells into people suffering from diabetes to help address symptoms they are experiencing.
But that only scratches the surface of the multitude of health problems that could be addressed through controlled stem cell differentiation. These include severe burns, spinal cord injuries, hearing loss, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and many others.
Other Trials Involving Stem Cells
According to the California Stem Cell Agency, trials are underway to see how stem cells could be used to improve a wide variety of health issues. For example, research is being conducted into ways to inject stem cells into the brain to help stroke victims, and to use stem cells to replaced damaged cells in the inner ear and restore hearing. Work is being done to alter stem cell genes in order to make cells more resistant to AIDS and other diseases as well. Researchers are also looking at ways to cultivate stem cells to help strengthen the bones of people with osteoarthritis.
In addition, scientists are studying how human stem cells could ultimately be used to test new medications, rather having to test them on animals. 6
The Bottom Line
Research indicates that stem cells can potentially have a profound impact on improving human health. But there are not only scientific hurdles to clear, there are also controversies that have to be addressed regarding the use of human embryos in order to further that research. Scientists are working feverishly to eliminate that controversy by finding ways to turn adult stem cells into any kind of cell type that may be needed to address a particular health problem. If that can be achieved, embryonic stem cells won’t be needed at all.
A lot of hard work has been performed, and some incredible achievements have occurred as a result. But there is still a very long way to go before the full potential of stem cell research is realized.