When diseases can’t be treated by drugs, surgery, or organ transplants, one exciting source of treatment remains: stem cell therapy. Currently, the use of stem cells has been approved for just a few conditions, including leukemia, corneal damage, and skin grafting. But studies around the world are yielding new forms of treatment.
Read on to learn about breakthroughs in stem cell research.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells have the potential to develop into many different kinds of cells. Different types of stem cells form at different stages of human development and have different uses.
Totipotent Stem Cells
When sperm first fertilizes an egg, it creates totipotent cells, capable of becoming any kind of cell in the human body. These are the most versatile of all stem cells.
Pluripotent Stem Cells
After a few days of development, the cells of a newly fertilized egg change to pluripotent stem cells. These can also form any kind of cell, but are not as versatile as totipotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells can be harvested from tiny embryos, or created with adult cells such as skin cells.
Multipotent Stem Cells
Multipotent cells form later in development, with the potential to become cells of certain types. For instance, cord blood cells, found in umbilical cords, can be used to regenerate cells in the blood and immune system.
Stem Cell Breakthroughs
Because of their versatility, research is examining the ways that stem cells can be used to regrow almost any type of tissue. This makes stem cells an important tool for fighting blindness and other diseases.
Recently the European Commission approved a process for repairing a damaged cornea with stem cell therapy. Doctors first take a tiny biopsy from the eye in the area between the sclera (white part of the eye) and the cornea (clear frontal covering of the eye). This tissue is then grown into new corneal tissue, which can be placed over the damaged cornea to restore eyesight for someone blinded by a corneal abrasion or burn.
Scientists in Japan are working to treat macular degeneration with pluripotent cells harvested directly from the patient. Transplanting the stem cells can regenerate the cells that preserve the rods and cones of the retina, preserving eyesight.
Researchers at Harvard are looking at ways to regrow pancreatic insulin-producing cells by using stem cells. By turning a patient’s cells into pluripotent cells, they can transform these into insulin-producing cells.
Stem cell therapy may be useful to help repair the heart and prevent heart failure. Not only can stem cells be used to grow new heart and vascular tissue, but they also release hormones and chemicals that promote further healing in damaged tissue.
In multiple sclerosis, the immune system attacks the myelin coating the nerve cells, which can disrupt signals from the brain. Researchers at the Sheffield Teaching Hospital in England have used patient blood stem cells to “reboot” the immune system, ending the attacks.
The Future of Stem Cell Research
Researchers continue to look for new ways to use stem cells, such as regrowing damaged spinal cords; regrowing tendons, or treating common ailments such as arthritis. As science progresses, stem cell research may be able to reduce dependence on drugs and grow organs that are as good as new.
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