The Future of Stem Cells in Medicine
Stem cells are a type of cell that is able to develop into a variety of different cell types. One of their purposes is to serve as a sort of repair system in the body. They can divide with virtually no limit and in turn, they can replenish various cells throughout the body as necessary. Upon division, stem cells can do two things. They can either become another type of cell for a specialized purpose or they can remain a stem cell, allowing further division. With the ability to duplicate virtually every type of cell in the body, it is no wonder that scientists are so interested in finding ways to utilize stem cells for medical purposes.
One of the difficulties with the medical application of stem cells is that they are still a bit of a mystery to scientists. For example, we still don’t fully understand what causes stem cells to become specific types of cells. Scientists are attempting to unravel this mystery by studying the initial formation of stem cells. This is being done through research of embryonic stem cells. The amazing thing that we have discovered through this research is that an entire human body can be produced from just one single stem cell. So, through full understanding of how this process works, the medical implications of stem cells are virtually unlimited.
Stem cells are already being used for a variety of treatments, and those treatments are on the rise. Bone marrow transplants use stem cells acquired from the blood and are a highly effective treatment used all over the world. In 2006, a researcher from Japan by the name of Yamanaka conducted experiments showing that stem cells may one day be used to cure various genetic diseases. The great thing about this type of treatment is it would forego the need for patients to have to take medications, which can come with a host of adverse side effects. Instead, a natural part of the body’s own healing mechanism is utilized in a way where external drugs are unnecessary.
Scientists are already using stem cells in laboratories to screen new medications, identify causes of birth defects and gain a better understanding of natural development and growth. Future aspirations for stem cell medicinal use includes treating muscular degeneration diseases, heart diseases, multiple forms of arthritis, spinal cord injuries as well as treating stroke victims, people suffering from diabetes and more. Various animal studies have shown potential in all of these areas. For example, mice that had stem cells transplanted into a damaged heart showed to have beneficial effects on the heart. While science still seeks to understand the exact process in which the stem cells can improve the heart’s condition, the potential for stem cells to treat those conditions are readily apparent.
Research at Harvard Medical School has shown promising research where stem cells have been used to restore partial sight in animals suffering from retinal damage. Additionally, they plan to begin clinical trials within the next few years. They hope that within the next decade their method will offer patients who are suffering from macular degeneration to be treated with a two-hour process that helps to restore their vision. If successful, this treatment could be as commonplace as laser surgery is for eyes today. The only difference would be that stem cell treatment comes with less risk and more effectiveness. It is just a matter of time until society sees various treatments utilizing the amazing regenerative ability of stem cells.