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Straight No Chaser: The Possibilities Presented By Stem Cell Research

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD November 15, 2018

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It’s nice to know that medical advances aren’t limited to the development of new drugs (that themselves have side effects). Theoretically, the best efforts to definitively reverse disease will result from addressing its cause and point of formation at the core (or stem, if you must). Today’s topic is stem cell research. My goal is to provide a simple overview to decipher the noise of the political debate surrounding the topic, which is a very important (in fact, life-altering) one.

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When our developing embryos are only a few days old, the young stem cells begin the process of blossoming into everything that our bodies need, including our organs (e.g., heart, lung, skin, brain, etc.) and the specialized cells needed to perform functions within these organs. Stem cells don’t go away, however. Adult stem cells continue to function as sources to repair and replaced damaged and dying tissue. It is this study of embryonic and adult stem cells that allows scientists to learn about human development and cell function, to identify the cause and timing of birth defects and to develop treatments to combat disease.

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Stem cells are a unique brand of cells within our bodies, having two unique attributes not seen in other cells.

  • They are unspecialized; meaning they have the capacity to become what the body needs, either at onset or throughout life. In experiments, stem cells have been induced to become both tissue-specific and organ-specific with special functions.
  • They have the capability to renew themselves instead of simply dying after being inactive.

Physiologically, these characteristics are of much value. Stem cells serve as an “internal repair system,” replenishing cells as the need arises. This is a common means of restoring losses from blood, muscle, brain and other damaged tissue cells. There appears to be no limit to the ability of stem cells to replenish other cells.
Based on the type of information frequenting the news, you might want to know about the different types of stem cells and the approaches to addressing disease that can result from using stem cells.

  • Embryonic stem cells are those arising from human embryos and grown in a laboratory. Surely you’re aware of some of the ethical and religious concerns related to using the cells of embryos.
  • Scientists have addressed some of these concerns by developing a newer type of stem call called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). In short, scientists have learned how to genetically reconfigure certain adult cells backwards to a stem cell likeness.

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Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potentials for treating many different diseases, including common ones such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. The use of stem cells in this manner is referred to as regenerative or reparative medicine. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, but here are two exciting avenues that scientists are pursuing:

  • Scientists are already using stem cells in the laboratory to screen new drugs. For example, once the path of development of cancer cells is defined (via its stem cell line), anti-tumor drugs can be tested on their ability to stop this development.
  • The notion of what’s called cell-based therapies is all the rage in this scientific community. The development of cells and tissues through stem cell research has theoretical applications for organ transplants (where the need greatly outpaces the supply).
  • The ability to replace damaged and diseases tissues with undamaged tissue grown from stem cells offers hope to patients suffering from many other disease such as Alzheimer’s, arthritis, stroke, diabetes, heart disease and many other conditions.

Again, we’re not there yet, but the science is fascinating, the possibilities are seemingly endless and the progress is real. Stay tuned.
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