Arguably the most important, positive result of stem cell research is the potential to seek and destroy untreatable diseases in our bodies.
The mission, which researchers around the globe have accepted, is simple: through stem cell transplants, trigger embryonic stem cells to differentiate into a desired type of cell, which then replaces the damaged cells in a person’s body.
While the premise is simple, navigating the challenges the human body presents makes the endgame difficult to attain. Stem cells dying before they can regenerate or repair, and the body rejecting foreign cells, are just two of the tall tasks standing in the way of viable disease treatments.
But the potential is there. We’ll quickly explore how stem cell technologies are altering modern medicine and our approach towards these common diseases.
The most intriguing breakthrough in diabetes treatment has to be the collaborative effort between researchers from the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI), and Dr. Lola Reid, an expert in liver development from the University of North Carolina.
They discovered a new line of stem cells in the biliary tree (comprised of the liver, gall bladder, and bile ducts) of the body, now known as pancreatic precursor cells. If these cells can be programmed to form islets, and safely transplanted to diabetics, they can help regulate blood sugar levels. This can lead to the end of daily insulin shots.
In 2009, Yong Zhao and his research team, through animal experimentation, showed Type 1 diabetes could be reversed through cord blood-derived multipotent cells.
And in 2012, Type 1 diabetes was successfully treated – in a human clinical trial – via cell educator therapy, employing the same cord blood-derived multipotent cells Zhao experimented with.
A study conducted by the Jules Stein Eye Institute in Los Angeles suggests stem cell transplants can be exploited in countering progressive vision loss. The trial used embryonic stem cells to regenerate retinal pigment epithelium cells, which are responsible for various tasks of the eyeball, including light absorption and visual cycles.
Transplanting the embryonic stem cells into people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) resulted in significant eyesight improvement.
NERVOUS SYSTEM DISORDERS
Making gains in treating nervous system disorders has been complicated.
The 1970’s gave us a glimpse at the application of stem cells in nervous system disorders. A study involving cells from the substantia nigra (the ‘midbrain’, responsible for movement) of fetal tissue were transplanted into a rat, creating mature dopamine neurons.
This only became meaningful when it was later discovered the transplant could reverse Parkinson’s-like symptoms in rats and monkeys.
The current M.O. for stem cell researchers is to identify the growth factors used by our brains, which can lead to reduced brain damage, and activating stem cells to repair leftover damage.
Many types of stem cells have been trialed with to gauge their usefulness in regenerating myocardial tissues. The premise is to regenerate the damage to the heart caused by heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular diseases.
Skeletal myoblasts transplants in rats & humans have hinted at the possibility of repairing scar tissue damage, as well as improved functioning of the left ventricle.
In 2001, another study showed stem cells taken from a mouse’s bone marrow could generate cardiac muscle cells & endothelial cells, helping survival rates after a heart attack.
The latest cardiac stem cell research involves ambitious endothelial progenitor cells regenerating blood vessels and the myocardium.
Igor Adameyko from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden was first to find stem cells in the nerves of our teeth.
How he came about the discovery is extremely complex, but we can say his findings have proven two things: that stem cells do reside in peripheral nerves, and that they are significant in tissue formation & healing.
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