In recent years, the news surrounding stem cells have been incredibly optimistic. They have been portrayed as a medical miracle that can cure a wide variety of issues and regenerate almost any damaged organ. Unfortunately, stem cells are not a cure-all, but they are still an essential component of the future of medical care and show incredible promise for medical treatments.
What are stem cells?
Stem cells are unique human cells that hold the ability to develop into different cell types. From muscle cells to brain cells, stem cells provide an opportunity for medical treatments that could treat many different illnesses and ailments, such as Alzheimer’s disease in aged people.
There are 2 main types of stem cells: embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells come from unused embryos that result from in vitro fertilization procedures. These unused embryos are donated to science and are unique in their pluripotent ability (the ability to turn into multiple cell types).
Adult stem cells are broken into 2 types: one comes from fully developed tissues, like bone marrow, skin, and the brain. There is only a limited number of stem cells in these tissues, and they are more likely only to generate one type of cell. For example, a brain cell will only produce more brain cells.
The second type of cell is known as a pluripotent stem cell. These cells are adult stem cells that have been altered in a lab to induce pluripotency. First discovered in 2006, induced pluripotency of adult stem cells is almost identical to embryonic stem cells. However, they are not able to turn into every kind of tissue cell.
When were stem cells discovered?
It’s been assumed among the medical community for hundreds of years that some organs have regenerative properties. However, it was not until the year 1868 that the term “stem cell” was first used. It was a German scientist by the name of Ernst Haechel who recognized the unique ability of specific cells to replicate and to produce different cell types.
A massive breakthrough for stem cell research came in the 1960s. In the aftermath of the horrific injuries sustained in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was found that a blood transfusion from a healthy donor to someone exposed to radiation could restore the ill person’s wellbeing. This is one of the reasons blood transfusions are now a common treatment for those receiving radiation and chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
In 1998, scientists were finally able to isolate human embryonic stem cells. The time this took was largely due to the need for different conditions to work with the mouse cells that were initially being used, as well as the ethical implications of using human embryonic stem cells.
From there, research into stem cells has continued to expand and evolve. From the cloning of Dolly the sheep to the 2006 breakthrough by Shinya Yamanaka in Japan that showed that skin cells from a mouse could be “reprogrammed,” stem cells have continued to demonstrate the powerful ways they can be utilized in the medical field.
What can stem cells do for you?
While stem cells certainly can’t fix every ailment and issue, stem cell treatments have shown tremendous promise for a select few illnesses and issues.
The most commonly recognized application for stem cell therapy is in cancer treatment. As we mentioned earlier, high doses of chemotherapy and radiation therapy are used to kill cancer cells. Unfortunately, these life-saving treatments also kill the stem cells in the patient’s bone marrow; to treat that, patients can be given healthy stem cells from a donor that are transfused into the bone.
These donor cells settle in the bone marrow and in time, begin to produce healthy blood cells. This form of cell therapy is called engraftment.
There is also autologous stem cell transplants, which harvests your blood cells before treatment and then frozen. Once your treatment is complete, these cells are reintroduced back into your body.
The benefit of this type of cell therapy is that it removes the worry of engrafted or donated cells attacking your body and ultimately being rejected. However, there is still a risk of graft failure. This occurs when the stem cells fail to enter the bone marrow and successfully produce new cells.
Autologous stem cell transplants are most often used to treat leukemias, multiple myelomas, and lymphomas. Certain cancer present in children and people with testicular cancer may also be viable candidates for this type of procedure.
Cell therapy can also be used to treat spinal muscular atrophy in children under the age of two.
Another unique form of cell therapy can be found in CAR T cell therapy. CAR T cell therapy (or Chimeric Antigen Receptor Therapy) is a fascinating type of cell therapy that modifies the patient’s immune cells. The modification of these cells produces a receptor on their surface that recognizes the antigens found on the surface of malignant cells.
These modified T-cells then bind to this antigen, and the T-cell will be stimulated to attack and destroy the malignant cell. Substantially, your body’s T-cell is modified to recognize and neutralize cancer cells in your body, instead of letting them reproduce out of control.
What is the current state of cell therapy?
Cell therapy is a continually evolving field that continues to show promise in treating a variety of illnesses and ailments. However, there are still risks and limitations involved in stem cell therapy. It’s important to remember that stem cell therapy is not a “cure all” and is still considered experimental in most cases.
While some stem cell therapies have produced overwhelmingly positive results, there is always the risk of tumor formation caused by rogue stem cells. It’s critical this is taken into consideration before therapy is attempted since once stem cells are injected into the body, they cannot be removed.
While the promise of stem cell therapy is great, it will never be a magic bullet for previously untreatable conditions. Managing your expectations of stem cell therapy is essential, as this field continues to undergo development and research.