Stems cells are capable of becoming any type of cell and, given the right conditions, can grow indefinitely in cell culture. They appear to be an all-round solution to many scientific and medical goals seen in the number of clinical studies testing new stem cell therapies growing every year. From lab-made replacement body parts to limiting aging, stem cell therapies sound like something from a science fiction movie but with research accelerating at its current rate, it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement!
Let’s look at some of the uses for stem cells found thus far and examine briefly where future research is headed.
Perhaps one of the most sensational uses of stem cells has been their potential to change the medical industry. So far we’ve seen major advances in treatment options, from stem cell-derived epidermal skin grafts for burns to stem cell transplants for leukemia. We’ve even begun using more complex tissues in a clinical setting such as a trachea for a cancer survivor, and the day is approaching when growing organs like hearts, kidneys and lungs will become routine. Imagine being able to grow organs and tissues replacements for anyone from their own cells: welcome to the future!
With the development of stem cell culturing techniques, the pharmaceutical industry has found new energy in its race to find the next big drug. There are many reasons for this. For starters, stem cells can be used to grow all the common cell types and tissues you might like to test a drug on so a new drug for cardiac disease can be tested on cardiac tissue that has been grown in vitro allowing researchers to test the drug on human cells efficiently and reliably. Not only does this allow the industry to test a far greater number of pharmaceutical and nutraceutical therapies effectively, it increases the reliability of testing drug candidates in the lab and predictability of the results and thus speeds up the process of introducing new formulas onto the market.
Additionally, using human stem cells reduces the need for animal models. Animals models for disease can be very misleading. While treatments may be effective and safe in a mouse, rabbit or rat, there are many cases where this has not been shown to carry over to humans and vice versa for example mouse models of inflammatory diseases. Stem cells help to minimize this issue by giving you information to predict how a drug will work in a human subject.
The list for autoimmune disorders, cancers, infectious diseases, and other areas of disease research currently investigating stem cells to better understand and even offer a treatment solution has become too long to list but includes:
- Heart Disease
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Systemic Sclerosis
- Macular Degeneration and other Ophthalmological Diseases
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Sickle Cell Disease
- Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI)
This list names only a few of many treatments. Bone marrow stem cell as a therapy is now a standard treatment for blood and bone cancers and there are many clinical trials looking at their use in other diseases.
Research on Aging
As we age, the body’s ability to cope with damage and to repair cells/tissues lessens. The key to repairing this degeneration may be targeting our stem cells.
One hypothesis (of many!) is that aging may be caused by a reduction overtime in the number of stem cells in our bodies. This is called the stem cell theory of aging. The theory hypothesizes that our stem cells lose their ability to divide and differentiate over time and replace old and damaged cells.
Examining how stem cells age may help us slow the effects of aging and treat or even prevent age-related diseases. Experimental evidence shows that as stem cells age, they lose their ability to limit the transcriptional activity of retrotransposons (previously thought to be “junk DNA”) resulting in an increased tendency for cells to undergo senescence. Reversing this accumulation in vitro returned the ability of older stem cells to divide and differentiate suggesting that in the future we may be able to harness this as an anti-aging and anti-aging related illnesses therapy!
What other uses for stem cells have you heard? Does your lab use stem cells? Tell us in the comments section below!