Everyone is born different: some are born healthy and some are born with genetic disorders. Stem Cell Therapy (SCT), which is a type of regenerative medicine, works by replacing cells which have been destroyed by diseases to healthy, functioning cells. It is an advancement on organ transplantation in which cells are used instead of organs. The technique is still being investigated for its application for different diseases, and there are many promising treatments, e.g. bone marrow stem cells which are used to replace blood cells in people suffering from leukaemia and other cancers and the replacement of dysfunctional skin cells with new, healthy ones.
The ultimate goal of stem cell therapy is to replace unhealthy cells with healthy ones in the most efficient and effective manner, allowing the patients’ body to go back to being healthy and functional. There are many types of degenerative diseases that may benefit from this treatment, and you probably know someone who has one of them: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Type 1 Diabetes. Degenerative diseases cause about half of adult deaths in developed nations (Americans for Cures).
The different types of stem cell therapy
Stem cell research has been showing promising results in different degenerative disorders. They have been used in different types of stem cell therapy. Since stem cells have the ability to transform into other types of cells, scientists are testing them for the purposes of growing new cells in laboratories to replace damaged organs and to correct parts of organs that no longer function well. A lot of research is being done for stem cell therapy to find out causes of genetic defects in cells, to find out how diseases develop in certain cells and for new drugs and their impact on the cells (Healthline).
There is still a lot to learn about stem cells. Some of the current applications are not fully understood by science, and there is a lot of exaggerated news by the media. Some clinics who are looking to capitalize on the hype are selling unapproved treatments to ill or injured patients. There is huge potential, but still has limitations.
Risks and challenges to having stem cell therapy
The list of diseases in which stem cell treatments is currently applicable is still very narrow. The highest use is for blood stem cell transplantation, such as the bone barrow to treat blood and immune system disorders (Read more about immune system disorders here: Immunotherapy: Engineering the Immune System to Tackle Fatal Diseases). Another use is for some bone, skin and corneal (eye) injuries and diseases which could be treated by implanting tissues, where the healing process relies on the implanted stem cells (The International Society for Stem Cell Research).
Many applications are not approved by regulatory authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and as such, there are unverified stem cell treatments for sale that are not beneficial and can be risky. When patients are treated with these unproven treatments, it can cause short-and long-term health problems, and make the condition worse than it is.
For doctors or medical practitioners, the dispersion of experimental treatment can make the clinic ineligible for future clinical trials. The use of these experimental treatments will also be an out-of-pocket expense for the patient, and in most cases, insurance and government health schemes will not cover the cost (The International Society for Stem Cell Research).
For these cells to be useful to people, researchers must ensure that the stem cells will transform into the desired cell type. Researchers have found methods to direct stem cells to become specific types of cells, e.g. from embryonic stem cells to heart cells, but, there are still probabilities that these cells could grow irregularly and trigger an immune response where the patient’s body attacks the stem cells as foreign invaders. This will disrupt the process and cause more problems within the patient’s body (Mayo Clinic).
Stem cell therapy has also been getting a lot of controversy from the way that stem cells are obtained. For example, to harvest embryonic stem cells, an embryo needs to be destroyed, which raises some serious ethical concerns (Health Line).
With the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), there may be less need for human embryos in research and clinical application, thus tackling some of the moral issues. IPSCs are a type of stem cell that can be generated directly from adult cells through the addition of certain molecular factors (Elsevier Inc).
Opportunities for stem cell therapy
One of the biggest opportunities for stem cell research is the discovery of how to create specialized cell types from stem cells. Such cell types include heart muscle cells, blood cells, or nerve cells (Mayo Clinic). When used carefully, the specialized cells can help regenerate diseased or damaged tissue.
Although there is still a likelihood that the immune system rejects a stem cell transplant, there is a lot of opportunity for patients with disease to benefit from this class of drug once more research has found ways to make it more effective and safe.
The FDA will approve the use of stem cell growth in human trials once a stem cell therapy follows the good manufacturing practice (GMP) standards, so that cells are manufactured in an identical, repeatable and sterile environment. Although the FDA still does not have guidelines in place, achieving a level of consistency also means the exact identity and quantity of every component involved in growing the cells (CIRM).
The more information is known about the causes and effects of a particular disease, the easier it gets to identify the most suitable treatment option. There are a lot of clinical trials going on to investigate the potential applications of stem cell therapy. It is still too early to know if any of the applications work, thus there is still a large need of evidence gathered through clinical trials to find out if the treatments are safe, effective, and better than the existing treatments.
There are ongoing or completed clinical trials in macular degeneration, neurological conditions, diabetes, spinal cord injury, and myocardial infarction. In additional, there are new and ongoing clinical trials on multiple sclerosis therapy using blood stem cells, leukaemia studies, and cartilage or tendon injuries. There are also numerous other clinical trials that are testing drugs to stimulate stem cells in the patient’s body and deriving cells or cell lines to be used in research and clinical trials (Euro Stem Cell).
The potential of stem cell therapy to ease human suffering and lower the chances of getting disease has motivated researchers and scientists to do more preclinical studies and clinical trials on the matter. There is a lot of opportunity for doctors and researchers to make new discoveries in the line of stem cell therapy.
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