Imagine being able to grow a replacement brain, muscle, or other organs that can be successfully implanted into a patient, using your own cells and without being rejected by your body. This is possible using stem cells. There is a lot of buzz around this, and advances in stem cell research have also been called a “miracle of science.”
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Types of Stem Cell Research
Currently, there are three key areas of stem cell research: embryonic stem cells (ESC), tissue/adult stem cells, and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. There is a plethora of research using these stem cells to treat conditions like spinal cord injuries to juvenile diabetes. It would be shortsighted to pursue only one kind, as each may hold particular promise for understanding and treating specific diseases.
Embryonic Stem Cells (ESC)
Embryonic Stem Cells come from embryos, just five days after fertilization. They can turn into any of the 200 somatic cell types in a human body. These “master cells” promise to provide large enough quantities of specialized nerve, pancreas, or other cells to help patients whose own cells are not functioning. Under the right conditions, the ESC can become stem cell lines that can be maintained indefinitely in an undifferentiated state, or guided to become specific types of cells.
Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) Cells
Scientists can induce certain specialized cell types through a multi-step process using pluripotent stem cells, which are embryonic stem cells or induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These cells have the potential to form all the different cell types in the body and offer an exciting opportunity to develop new treatment strategies.
Embryonic stem cells and iPS cells, however, cannot be used directly as treatments, as they require careful instruction to become the specific cells needed to regenerate diseased or damaged tissue.
Technological Advances with Stem Cell Research
Cloning using Embryonic Stem Cells
Researchers believe that cloning will solve the issue of transplant tissue rejection. For instance, a patient with Parkinson’s disease could use their own iPS cells to clone brain tissues. These brain tissues can then be implanted back into the patient, and would not be rejected by their immune system.
Stem Cell Treatments
Since stem cell therapy is still a relatively new area, there are a lot of promising lab results that have yet to be replicated in animals or humans. It is very difficult to translate successful lab results in a safe treatment option for humans because there are a host of risks that would be more harmful than beneficial.
The best-defined and most extensively used stem cell treatment is hematopoietic (or blood) stem cell transplantation, for example, bone marrow transplantation, to treat certain blood and immune system disorders or to rebuild the blood system after treatments for some kinds of cancer. Other applications of stem cells are yet to be proven in clinical trials and should be considered highly experimental.
Cancer Treatments and Birth Defects
Some intriguing new studies suggest that understanding ESC behavior will bring new insights into cancer. And learning how embryonic stem cells can go away may also make it possible to intervene and avoid birth defects.
Personal Inventory of Stem Cells
A day might come when every individual will have a store of personal stem cells available to provide him or her with replacement tissue if needed. By the middle of this century, organ donor shortages and tissue rejection might be things of the past.
Shortcomings of Stem Cell Treatment
The same stem cell treatment is unlikely to work for different diseases or conditions. As stem cells that are specific to certain tissues cannot make cells found in other tissues without careful manipulation in the lab, it is very unlikely that the same stem cell treatment will work for diseases affecting different tissues and organs within the body.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between doctors conducting responsible clinical trials and clinics selling unproven treatments. One common differentiator is the way a treatment is marketed. Most specialized doctors receive patient referrals, while clinics selling stem cell treatments tend to market directly to patients, often through persuasive language on the Internet and newspaper advertisements.
There is no guarantee that stem cell therapy might be effective for a disease or condition, it is easy to understand why you may feel there is nothing to lose from trying something new, even if it isn’t proven. Unfortunately, most of the unproven stem cell treatments for sale throughout the world carry very little promise of actual benefit and very real risks.