When we talk about stem cells we necessarily need to define what, exactly, we’re talking about. Currently there’re two popular versions of stem cells used in research and treatment: adult stem cells, which are fully-developed stem cells for a particular organ (say, the brain) and embryonic stem cells, which are far more capable of morphing into necessary cells. The former isn’t controversial while the latter inspires a great deal of headlines. Many people may ask if there are two forms of stem cells, then why harvest and use the stem cells which are controversial. The answer — in a greatly reductive terminology — is that embryonic stem cells are far, far more capable of adapting to varying needs than adult stem cells.
It’s important to not inflate what stem cells are capable of — they’re not the miracle substance which will cure what ails you, but they are a medical advancement which have the potential of making life easier for those who’ve lost, are losing, or never had, normal body functions.
Regardless of any political stances on the issue, there have been remarkable advances in stem cell research. Here are four examples of the latest in stem cells:
One of the more recent, and intriguing, developments in stem cells is the creation of a stem cell “printer.” Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland have crafted a method of printing delicate human embryonic stem cells without damaging or outright killing the cells. The effect isn’t so much a treatment, but rather a method of effectively placing stem cells so they stay alive and give scientists more tissue material to work and test with.
The method has the potential to develop into a full-fledged “organ printer” which would create artificial organs and incorporate a patient’s own cells to lower the risk of the body rejecting a new organ. If successful, it could help reduce the human organ shortage throughout the world, though this technology is still a ways off.
Stem cells have a very promising future in treating muscular dystrophy, an often lethal group of genetic diseases affecting skeletal muscles and the heart. The cells could provide a great treatment by injecting cells engineered to produce healthy muscle fiber into a patient. This could cause the cells to replace muscles damaged by dystrophy.
For example, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder have developed a method of stem cell injection which caused lab rats to generate twice the amount of muscle they normally would. While the prospect of muscular mice running around may seem a bit disconcerting, the practical application of the method could treat the erosion of muscle caused by muscular dystrophy and the loss of strength due to aging. Additionally, according to EuroStemCell, the cells could be used to reduce inflammation, thereby slowing the disease.
Alzheimer’s is a scary, scary disease. But scientists are using embryonic stem cells to do what embryonic stem cells do best: discover and test new treatments to slow the progression of the disease. Scientists at Northwestern University have developed a method of creating batches of healthy neurons — the brain cells which keep your brain running at full steam — in order to identify new drugs, and their effects, to treat Alzheimer’s. As The Guardian notes, this development could also lead to brain cell transplants to help fight memory loss.
A brain transplant from stem cells, however, won’t likely happen for quite some time — there is a risk the stem cells could become cancerous, which is why further research is needed.
But there is one type of treatment currently being tested in humans, and it’s one of the more promising uses of stem cells: treating blindness. In 2011, the FDA approved of using embryonic stem cells for clinical trials. The trials would treat age-related macular dystrophy and Stargardt’s macular dystrophy — both conditions cause severe vision loss. Two women, both suffering from one of the aforementioned afflictions, volunteered to be treated with stem cell injections. The result have been very reassuring .
After four months the patients reported an improvement in vision with no noticeable side effects. Thought the test lacked a control group, Dr. Robert Lanza, a co-author of the study wrote that even the lowest dosage of the cells had a noticeable impact visual improvement — even at a late stage in the disease. Treating the disease with stem cells earlier could yield even better results.
Scientists have also developed a method of creating retina-like tissues out of stem cells. Such tissues could be used in order to create and test treatments for various eye diseases.
Much of what stems cells do is currently experimental, but the rules guiding embryonic stem cell research in the United States have been eased. This could provide researchers with the necessary opportunity to make stem cell treatments more of a reality and life for those afflicted by disease a little more bearable.
Angie Picardo is a staff writer for NerdWallet. Her mission is to help consumers stay financially savvy, and save some money with the best savings account interest rate.
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