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How Stem Cells Are Changing the Face of Modern Medicine

Stem cells and the emerging field of regenerative medicine are changing the very nature of healthcare from drug discovery to astounding new treatments.

The advent and evolution of stem cell technology has transformed just about everything we thought we knew about human biology and disease. When they were first discovered and science began to grasp their nature and their ability to produce virtually any cell in the body, stem cells offered a new window into the mechanisms of early human development. 

However, soon, they began to make a major contribution beyond the basic sciences. Today, stem cells show significant promise in the field of regenerative medicine as a source of cells tailored to replace damaged or dysfunctional tissues. This is beginning to change the face of modern medicine and how we approach the treatment of injuries and disease.

A quick survey of the itinerary from the 2021 International Society for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine annual conference, for example, highlights efforts to apply stem cells to treat conditions such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD) diabetes, COVID-19-related acute respiratory distress syndrome, and even hair loss.

Why Is There Such an Interest In Stem cells?

Researchers and doctors hope stem cell studies can help to:

  • Increase understanding of how diseases occur. By watching stem cells mature into cells in bones, heart muscle, nerves, and other organs and tissue, researchers and doctors may better understand how diseases and conditions develop.
  • Generate healthy cells to replace diseased cells (regenerative medicine). Stem cells can be guided into becoming specific cells that can be used to regenerate and repair diseased or damaged tissues in people.

According to the Mayo Clinic, people who might benefit from stem cell therapies include those with spinal cord injuries, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke, burns, cancer, and osteoarthritis.

Stem cells may have the potential to be grown to become new tissue for use in transplant and regenerative medicine. Researchers continue to advance their knowledge of stem cells and their applications in transplant and regenerative medicine.

Stem cells also show amazing promise in drug discovery. For example, before using investigational drugs in people, researchers can use some types of stem cells to test the drugs for safety and quality. New areas of study include the effectiveness of using human stem cells that have been programmed into tissue-specific cells to test new drugs. For the testing of new drugs to be accurate, the cells must be programmed to acquire properties of the type of cells targeted by the drug. Techniques to program cells into specific cells continue to be studied.

For instance, nerve cells could be generated to test a new drug for a nerve disease. Tests could show whether the new drug had any effect on the cells and whether the cells were harmed.

What Is Stem Cell therapy (regenerative medicine) and How Does it Work?

Stem cell therapy, also known as regenerative medicine, promotes the repair response of diseased, dysfunctional, or injured tissue using stem cells to promote or emulate the body’s own healing or regenerative powers. 

It works like this. Researchers grow stem cells in a lab. These stem cells are manipulated to specialize into specific types of cells, such as heart muscle cells, blood cells, or nerve cells. The specialized cells can then be implanted into a person. For example, if a person has heart disease, the cells could be injected into the heart muscle. The healthy transplanted heart muscle cells could then contribute to repairing defective heart muscle.

Researchers have already shown that adult bone marrow cells guided to become heart-like cells can repair heart tissue in people, and more research is ongoing.

Have stem cells already been used to treat diseases?

Yes. Doctors have performed stem cell transplants, also known as bone marrow transplants. In stem cell transplants, stem cells replace cells damaged by chemotherapy or disease or serve as a way for the donor’s immune system to fight some types of cancer and blood-related diseases, such as leukemia, lymphoma, neuroblastoma, and multiple myeloma. These transplants use adult stem cells or umbilical cord blood.

Researchers are testing adult stem cells to treat other conditions, including a number of degenerative diseases such as heart failure. Stem cell technology has been used to regrow damaged muscle tissue and eye tissue.

Of course, there are still major hurdles to overcome before future stem cell treatments can reach the clinic. However, with more research and, crucially, continued investment, future stem cell therapies are poised one day completely transform the treatment of sickness, aging, injury, and disease as we know it. 

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