The Promise of Stem Cells
Because of the self-renewal property of stem cells, a single transplantation treatment may have the potential to return an impaired organ to proper function for the life of the patient.
Many degenerative diseases and disorders are caused by the loss of normal cellular function in a particular organ. When cells are damaged or destroyed, they no longer produce, metabolize or accurately regulate the many substances essential to life. Historically, donated organs have been transplanted and medical devices implanted to replace failing systems. In the case of the former, the need far outweighs the available supply and, in both cases, the risks and costs are high. Side effects may limit the effectiveness or feasibility of drug, radiation or surgical interventions. Advances in biotechnology have led to the identification and replication of specific substances — such as sugars, amino acids, neurotransmitters and hormones — that are deficient in some degenerative diseases. While administering these substances as medication can overcome some of the limitations of more traditional pharmaceutical products, such as lack of specificity, there is no synthetic technology that can deliver them to the precise sites of action under the appropriate physiological regulation and dosage, or for the duration required to cure the condition. Cells, however, do all of this naturally.
The concept of cell-based therapy (or simply cell therapy, as it is sometimes called) is to repair, replace or supplement damaged or diseased cells with healthy cells.
Mature, functionally differentiated cells have lost the capacity for reproduction. Therefore, when such specialized cells are lost due to disease or damage, other mature cells cannot fill the gap. Stem cells, in contrast, are cells at an early stage of development that have the ability to self-renew (that is, to reproduce themselves, dividing into two cells, at least one of which is also a stem cell) for indefinite periods. They give rise to a number of different kinds of mature, functionally differentiated (specialized) cells. Transplantation of stem or “progenitor” cells (cells that have already developed from stem cells, but can still produce one or more mature cell types within an organ) may prevent the loss of, or even generate new, functional cells, which could lead to tissue and organ repair and, potentially, the restoration of a patient’s health.
Stem Cell Research
Our understanding of human biology — the mechanisms and processes that allow humans to live, breathe, think and create — is still quite limited. It took nearly 200 years after discovery of the cell in the mid 1600s, before it was proposed that all living things are made up of cells. And it wasn't until the late 1990s that science — in fact our own Scientific Advisory Board member Dr. Fred Gage — overturned the popular notion that the brain neurons with which we are born must last us a lifetime, by showing that adult brains can indeed generate new neurons — from stem cells. The identification and isolation of stem cells is a relatively recent scientific development. But, according to the UK Stem Cell Foundation, over 2,000 research papers on stem cells are now being published in reputable scientific journals every year1. The fact is, we have much to learn from stem cells.