As one of the most innovative and exciting fields in science, stem cell research is brimming with possibilities that could benefit human health and well-being.
In what ways might stem cells be able to treat serious health conditions in the future?
Stem Cells & Heart Disease
Scientists believe that stem cells could soon be used to treat cardiovascular diseases like hypertension, stroke, congestive heart failure and coronary heart disease, all of which are highly prevalent in the United States. In fact, someone dies from a cardiovascular disease in the U.S. every 34 seconds. This disease primarily kills the heart’s muscle cells, which in turn limits the heart’s ability to continue pumping effectively.
Scientists are currently exploring the potential for embryonic, adult-derived, myoblast, umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow-derived steam cells to serve as regenerative cardiac muscle cells. Initial human clinical trials, which have primarily been performed during open heart surgery, have demonstrated that cardiac function is improved and capillary creation resumes after the introduction of these steam cells. However, these methods of stem cell introduction don’t reflect uniform purification or application, so the results are somewhat inconclusive as to how widespread implementation could move forward.
Stem Cells & Alzheimer’s Disease
The first clinical stem cell trial for treating Alzheimer’s disease is currently under way. Scientists hope the human trial will provide a better picture of the extent to which stem cells affect the Alzheimer’s brain and if their introduction could improve cognitive function. Alzheimer’s disease currently affects 5.2 million people in the United States and 44 million people around the world, and causes the death of large amount of neurons in the brain. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease can experience memory loss, difficulty reasoning, disorientation and the struggle to make decisions, among other symptoms.
Animal model testing has already shown that stem cells introduced in the brain are able to improve cognition, but not by replacing neurons. Rather, these stem cells are able to moderate any inflammation, improve remyelination, and provide trophic support. With these functions, the brain becomes healthier and its toxicity is lowered, which could reduce or halt the death of neurons.
Stem Cells & Organ Creation
Researchers are also very close to being able to create human organs. In May of this year it was announced that a new type of stem cell, the region-selective pluripotent stem cell, may have the ability to create any type of tissue, and therefore be the perfect candidate for successful organ creation. This type of cell is also exciting to scientists because it grows far more quickly and stably than the other two types of pluripotent stem cells.
Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the developmental biologist who discovered the region-selective pluripotent stem cell, believes that with gene editing, it may be possible to grow full human organs inside of animals, which could then be harvested and transplanted to humans in need of these organs. While Izpisua Belmonte’ s idea is still in its infancy, the discovery of the region-selective pluripotent stem cell in itself is cause for much hope and expectation.
Ultimately, as leading spinal surgeon Dr. J Kevin Kaufman states, it seems as though we’re on the precipice of a significant breakthrough in stem cell research and when—not if—these breakthroughs occur, we can expect unparalleled improvements in medical treatment.