Stem cell research is a fascinating, relatively new branch of medical research that has exploded as a result of the decoding of the human genome which, according to Wikipedia was declared complete in 2003, 13 years after the international project set up to do just that was started.
Based on my research for content for Design Your New Life, as a completely unqualified observer, I believe that stem cell therapies offer the broadest range of potential medicines and treatments for diseases associated with ageing.
I came across a new article in the “World Health” magazine this weekend (27th and 28th February 2016) which contained some really interesting updates on stem cell research. (World Health is an organisation dedicated to life extension and anti-ageing).
The World Health article actually summarised a paper released by Roger Pedersen, Professor of Regenerative Medicine and Director of the Anne McLaren Laboratory for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Cambridge.
Anyway, at risk of sending you to sleep, to cut a long story short, I decided to write a quick article on the main points of interest, and that led to a number of hours research which led me to many other linked documents and my brain to near overload.
So I decided I would just summarise the most interesting points for you and provide links to my main sources, for anyone interested enough to read more.
The full capabilities of stem cells are not yet known. Even the top researchers are still feeling their way through the complexities and discovering new and exciting things about them that will be valuable in future stem cell based medicines and treatments.
What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are the building blocks of all life (except single cell organisms) and they also play an important role in maintaining our physical bodies during our lifetime.
The human life cycle starts as one fertilised egg in the womb with just 16 identical cells in it, which we call Embryonic Stem Cells.
The good news is that an Embryonic stem cell is “Pluripotent” i.e. it is capable of becoming any other type of cell that is required to form the human baby that emerges 9 months later. These pluripotent cells rapidly multiply and differentiate. I.e. when they divide, they become the different types of cells that will be required to form the new human being.
Pluripotent stem cells are important in stem cell technology because they can “differentiate” when they divide (which is how all cells multiply i.e.one cell becomes 2 cells), and can therefore be used in all sorts of ways that we are just learning, to repair damage or genetic imperfections (ie something bad inherited from your descendants in your genes), amongst other things.
There are even stem cells we have labelled “Adult Stem Cells”, that hang around in a dormant state in certain parts of our bodies, and which are capable of coming to life when required and fixing several different types of issues specific to that part of the body.
So think of them as specialist stem cells, whereas pluripotent stem cells are generalist stem cells capable of fixing issues in all parts of the body by dividing and creating the type of stem cell needed at any part of the body (PS it seems we know this is what happens, but we are not yet sure exactly how). That’s life I guess!
Hopefully you get the broad concepts – if not have a look at the “Stem Cell Basics” on the nih.gov website (link below) which is well written.
The new information (to me at least) that was most interesting or exciting.
Most of the content for this section is taken directly from 3 main sources that inspired me to share this new information with you. I have included links to those sources in the references section at the end of the article.
In general, physicians and patients alike believe that stem cells are the future of medicine.
According to Professor Pedersen, Stem cell research is making giant leaps that could revolutionise the way we treat diseases and test drugs.
In addition to building our bodies before birth, stem cells are what our body uses to renew itself during our lifetime. Many of our body cells—intestine cells, skin cells, blood cells—are constantly being replaced.
For example, skin is constantly wearing out and falling off. It is replaced by new cells that start out in an
immature state— stem cells—which can then diversify into either hairs or skin or oil glands. It’s like a
plant growing from a stem that can turn into leaves or flowers or bark.
There are already established treatments using adult stem cells. Bone marrow transplants are a form of blood stem cell therapy and they are done routinely all over the world.
In 2006, A Japanese researcher, Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka, collected genes from mature adult skin tissue and reprogrammed them to become “‘pluripotent,” which means a cell able to differentiate into multiple types of cells.
According to Professor Pedersen “These ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’ (iPSCs) are so important because it means we can take adult cells from a person with a particular genetic disease, turn them into iPSCs, and then induce the iPSCs to turn into different types of body cells.
There is a stampede all over the world to use iPSCs to help cure genetic diseases and it is very exciting. Suddenly we can potentially identify medicines that will improve the condition of cells in the patient without having to take cells out of the petri-dish and put them back in the patient. Rather than testing new drugs on people it would be possible to test these cells in a petri-dish (a shallow cylindrical glass or plastic lidded dish that biologists use to culture cells).
The bigger picture is that Yamanaka’s findings tell us that we could make any cell turn into any other type of cell —-. We may find that the cell is an even more powerfully flexible entity than we imagined.
In other follow-up studies, scientists have shown that such cells could, in fact, be used to regenerate not only heart tissue, but brain, lung, and pancreas as well.
The potential applications of stem-cell technology in the future, as we learn more and more about how to apply it, and as the treatments become generally available at affordable prices – as they will, seems to be unlimited.
The decoding of the human genome took 13 years and $3 billion to complete. You can now get your personal genome sequenced for under $1000 in about a week. The cost is expected to be under $100 in a few years from now.
A “scholarly article” by the National Human Genome Research Institute, explains how this price reduction curve occurs in all fields of research (definitely for the mathematicians amongst you). See resources below.
New discoveries are being made all the time. We should all hope that the funding required to fast track treatments that could potentially cure diseases associated with ageing is made available. Ironically the cost to do this would be only a fraction of what is spent annually to treat and manage these diseases.
We must also ensure that the regulators who approve medicines and treatments for human use, who have been notoriously slow in the past, are not allowed to delay the availability of these life changing developments which could save countless lives and billions of dollars of tax-payers money.
If the hyperlinks don’t work you will need to copy and place the URL’s into you browser to view.
Roger Pedersen, Professor of Regenerative Medicine Cambridge University: www.stemcells.cam.ac.uk/assets/download/1094
World Health Magazine Article: http://www.worldhealth.net/news/are-stem-cells-future-medicine/
National Institute of Health: www.nih.gov
Shinya Yamanaka: Sept. 15, 2015, www.eurostemcell.org
National Human Genome Research Institute: https://www.genome.gov/sequencingcosts/