Image (c) Rachna mehra/ Flickr
Stem cells are quickly becoming one of the most explored options in medical treatment since the medical world first became aware of their existence in the late 1970’s.
There were two obstacles that researchers and doctors had to overcome in implementing stem cell therapy. The first were the ethical issues posed by using embryonic stem cells. And the second was the cancer issue. Stem cells from embryos were suspected, but un-proven, to contain certain markers that contributed to the development of some cancers.
The development of mesenchymal stem cells, or adult stem cells, seemed to solve both issues at once. There is some thinking that the use of adult stem cells may ultimately surpass the benefits ascribed to embryonic stem cells,however the evidence is not conclusive.
Why are stem cells so valuable to the medical community? There are three main reasons.
The Longevity of Stem Cells
Stem cells last a long time. This is a simple point but it’s invaluable to the medical community. Diseases that attack the body on a cellular level are known for their durability and their tendency to simply outlast treatments for their cure.
Stem cells are able to divide and multiply over a long period of time, meaning that they can effectively overcome even some of the most stubborn diseases and conditions.
Stem Cells are a Blank Slate
Unlike muscle cells or organ cells that are created to perform tasks related host surroundings, stem cells don’t serve any purpose of their own. They are virtual empty vessels, but their longevity and their adaptability combined with the fact that they are such a blank slate is what make them so valuable.
Stem Cells Get Along Well with Others
Having no set purpose of their own could not have been better news for researchers. The realization that stem cells also are highly susceptible to ‘differentiation’ means everything to the promises of stem cell therapy.
‘Differentiation’ is the ability of cells to replicate the structure and functions of neighbouring cells. By transplanting stem cells into a host environment, the stem cells will replicate the resident cells and add to their ability to divide and regenerate.
Regenerative Medicine is Born
This differentiation ability in stem cells is what gives the field of regenerative medicine so much promise for the future.
In a 2003 paper published by the American College of Rheumatology, the authors performed a study that sought to explore whether stem cell therapy was of value in treating Osteoarthritis.
The doctors conducting the study observed that there was regenerative growth in the medial meniscus connective tissue of damaged joints that had been injected with adult mesenchymal stem cells, as well as a noticeable slowing of the progressive destruction of the tissue that was commonly associated with Osteoarthritis.
Neurogical diseases and conditions are also an area that research is exploring in the hope that stem cell therapy will show promising results. However, in this area, progress has been much slower, though it is still just as promising.
With Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) the only drug that has shown any effectiveness in fighting the disease is a drug called Riluzole, which was first introduced to the public in 1994.
However, in 2009, a joint study was performed by researchers at the Ajou University school of Medicine and the Chungang University School of Medicine, both located in Korea, and the Division of Neurology at the University of British Columbia Hospital in Vancouver, Canada.
This study gave a lot more hope to sufferers of ALS than those previous to it, in that the results showed a definite effectiveness in the methods used to perform the transplants, with a corresponding rise in the favourable results.
The methods are used to effect the transplants are a vital part of the effectiveness of stem cell therapy. If the stem cells are unable to be introduced to the affected area, they are simply unable to do their intended job.
Stem Cell Therapy is not for everyone…Yet
There are still some types of patients that are unsuitable for stem cell therapy. Mainly these are people with conditions or diseases where the benefits of stem cell therapy are still unknown and thus forbidden by both the law and medical ethics.
There also some patients themselves who have been determined to be unsuitable because of their medical condition. Generally, some cancer patients are considered nonviable as stem cell recipients.
However, as research continues the benefits of stem cell therapy on growing array of medical conditions and diseases is apparent, and the list of unsuitable candidates for stem cell therapy will continue to lessen. And, one day regenerative medicine may be able to give us all a new lease on life.