A Medical Guide to Stem Cell Therapy
Stem cells are unique. They are the only cells in the human body capable of replicating themselves or changing into a specialized cell in other parts of the body. Stem cells are known to come from several sources and it is possible some sources have yet to be uncovered. Though the existence of stem cells has been known since the late 1800s when scientist first suspected some cells had the ability to not only reproduce themselves, but also change into specialized cells under some conditions, it was not until the early 1960s that stem cell research began in earnest. The first successful use of stem cell therapy was a bone marrow transplant to treat twins with an immunodeficiency disease. Bone marrow transplants are now done routinely, yet most individuals do not realize a bone marrow transplant is a stem cell transplant. Stem cell therapy is also referred to as regenerative medicine.
There are several types of stem cells being used in research and regenerative medicine today. These include adult stem cells, a special altered adult stem cell, and embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are the most versatile, but also raise the most debate. Embryotic stem cells used in research and treatment come from early stage embryos grown under lab conditions from fertilized eggs used in in vitro fertilization clinics but never implanted. These embryos were frozen and donated for research use. Still the use of embryonic stem cells raises complicated moral and ethical concerns for many individuals. Stem cells are also found in amniotic fluid but these have yet to be extensively researched.
Adult stem cells do not seem to have the same versatility and durability as embryonic stem cells. There is also concern that adult stem cells are often exposed to environmental factors that may increase the chance for malformations or weaknesses. New studies show adult stem cells may be more versatile than first believed under the right conditions. Another option is the use of special adult stem cells that have been altered to act similar to embryonic stem cells. This is done through nuclear reprogramming resulting in altered adult cells known as induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These cells are then used the same as embryonic stem cells in research studies and stem cell therapy. Continued research must be done to determine if altered adult stem cells will cause adverse effects in humans. Research using the altered adult stem cells to repair heart muscle damage in mice has been promising.
While there are vast amounts of research exploring the use of stem cell therapy to treat hundreds of conditions and diseases, there are few approved stem cell treatment uses available in the United States. The most successful use of stem cell therapy is that of bone marrow transplants which have been successfully accomplished for over forty years. Limbal stem cell transplants that use a patient’s own limbal cells from an undamaged area of their cornea to repair cornea damage is one example of a newer use of stem cell therapy. In a similar instance of using a patient’s own stem cells to promote healing, doctors at John Hopkins have used a patient’s own heart stem cells to repair heart damage following a heart attack. Biomedical students have designed suture material that contains stem cells that promote faster healing after surgeries. Restructured iPS cells are quickly being considered a viable alternative to using embryonic stem cells. Once the use of these altered adult cells are proven safe, they could be used in newer treatment options without the debate and controversy connected with embryonic research.
The future of stem cell research looks promising. The use of iPS transplants is the subject of numerous research studies. These studies will without doubt lead to further refinement and improvement in how these cells can be manipulated to obtain therapeutic success. The latest research already shows these adult stem cells are more versatile than first suspected. This opens the doors for their use in treating more diseases and conditions. Regenerative medicine is still an emerging science. As research reveals new information, the future of stem cell transplants for a variety of therapy options may well be limitless.
For more information concerning stem cell research and therapy possibilities, check out the following links.
- Understanding Stem Cells (PDF) – This publication from the National Academy of Sciences gives an overview of stem cell therapy, stem cell research, and the ethics and controversies surrounding this science.
- Stem Cells: What They Are and What They Do – On this Mayo Clinic page, you can find out how specialized stem cells may be used for treating a variety of conditions.
- National Geographic: The Stem Cell Divide – This is a reprinted article from the National Geographic magazine examining the scientific, ethical, and moral conflicts surrounding stem cell research.
- Ten Facts You Should Know About Stem Cell Therapies – Stem cell therapy has many uses, however, there are some claims that just have no scientific support at this time. Here are ten facts to help you evaluate the information you find concerning stem cell research.
- Adult Stem Cell Fact Sheet (PDF) – You will find good information in this document concerning the use of stem cell therapy in the United States. Included are brief explanations for each type of stem cell currently used in therapy as well as a list of stem cell providers within the United States.
- Types of Stem Cells –Not all stem cells are the same. If you are confused about the differences, this quick reference resource page is a handy guide to explaining where the different types of stem cells come from, which are surrounded in controversy, and the potential use for stem cell therapy.
- What are Adult Stem Cells? – The National Institute of Health provides detailed information about how adult stem cells can differentiate to create many specialized cell types within the body.
- Pluripotent Stem Cells – These stem cells are referred to as the ‘master cells’ of the human body. This resource from Boston Children’s Hospital gives information concerning three types of pluripotent stem cells and ongoing research and therapy.
- Mesenchymal Stem Cells – Mesenchymal stem cells have unique characteristics that make them useful in tissue repair. This allows for potential use in a number of therapies.
- Embryo & Stem Cell Research in the United States: History & Politics – Here you will the history of stem cell research within the United States. Also included is an in depth look at the obstacles that ethics, religion, and politics play in the advancement of embryo and stem cell research today.
- Stem Cell History Timeline – Though there was some evidence of stem cells or ‘special cells’ able to produce other cells as early as the late 1800s, this timeline begins in 1961 with the first published study that accidently identified cells that are able to renew indefinitely and be used for a variety of uses.
- History of Stem Cell Treatments – This article explores the early history of stem cell treatments and examines how the United States was a late comer into stem cell therapy use.
- Bone Marrow transplants and more – John Hopkins has been involved in stem cell research for 40 years. John Hopkins researcher was responsible for introducing stem cell therapy use in bone marrow transplants and John Hopkins researchers continue to be in the forefront of ongoing stem cell research today.
- Americans Support Stem Cell Research – This poll shows the increasing support among Americans for ongoing embryonic and stem cell research in spite of continued controversy and debate.
- EmCell Clinic- Founded in 1994, this stem cell research and treatment center has successfully treated thousands worldwide using stem cell therapy. This site contains an extensive list of diseases and conditions that may be helped by stem cell therapy.
- Clinical Trials for Stem Cell Therapies – There is a huge amount of ongoing research concerning stem cell therapy. This site contains a review of recent clinical trials.
- Stem Cell Therapy & Ethical Issues – Stem cell research and therapy holds unlimited potential for helping millions of people now living with incurable diseases. However, it also holds unlimited potential for debate and conflict surrounding ethical, moral, political, and even scientific issues. This article looks at all sides of the stem therapy controversy.
- Legal and Political History of Stem Cell Science – It is impossible to study stem cell therapy without understanding the legal and political issues that continue to stir controversy. This article details the main legal and political issues throughout the history of stem cell science.
- The Promise and Perplexities of Stem Cells – This article examines the complex issues surrounding stem cell research while exploring the future promises of stem cell therapy. This article raises the question of government funding and public education that is needed before stem cell therapy is widely available and accepted.
- Stem Cell Therapy and Diabetes – This is an abstract highlighting a study for the potential of stem cell therapy to be used in a transplant of the pancreatic islet cells responsible for Type 1 diabetes (diabetes mellitus).
- Stem Cell Therapy and Infantile Cerebral Palsy – Conventional therapy for infantile cerebral palsy involves extensive combination of physical and drug therapy. This article explores the use of stem cell transplants to aid in the regeneration of injured brain cells believed to be responsible for CP.
- ALS and Stem Cell Treatment – The ALS Association actively supports
research towards using stem cell therapy to treat ALS. This article explains this potential as well as the challenges ahead in the research needed before stem therapy can be effective.
- Issues and Concepts: Stem Cell Research – Debate continues to surround embryonic stem cell research. This article focuses on the debate concerning growing a line of embryonic stem cells in labs for use in research.
- Stem Cell Therapy in Orthopedics – The earliest stem cell therapy involved bone marrow transplants. This success continues to lead to ongoing research into the possibilities of stem cell transplants to treat other orthopedic conditions.
- Stem Cell Cornea Fix – This ABC news report highlights ongoing research exploring the use of limbal stem cells taken from a patient’s own eye to repair damage to the cornea.
- Limbal Stem Cell Transplantation (PDF) – The previous ink from an ABC news report refers to the use of limbal cell transplants to repair cornea damage. This is a brief summary of those early studies.
- Conditions Potentially Treatable by Stem Cell Transplants – While not all the conditions listed here are currently being treated using stem cell transplants, there are research studies underway to support the potential stem cell therapies has to address these conditions and more.
- Stem Cell Therapy for Heart Disease –The Cleveland Clinic supports ongoing research in using stem cells to repair damaged heart muscle. This page summarizes an ongoing clinical trial in using stem cells to support heart muscle repair.
- Cord Blood Stem Cell Treatments – Cord blood used for stem cell transplants has been in use for over twenty years. Here is a listing of diseases in which stem cells harvested from cord blood have been used.
- The Stem Cell Debate (PDF) – Issues surrounding the debate about the use of stem cells, especially embryonic stem cells has been around since the beginning of stem cell research. There is no doubt debate will continue. This document examines the issue from where embryonic stem cells come from, how they are harvested and ongoing issues behind the debate.