What if Alzheimers were curable? What if there was a cure for cancer? What if you could regrow a heart? Believe it or not, it’s all possible; and it all starts with stem cells.
But what are stem cells, really? Stem cells are considered to be our body’s “raw materials”. From these materials, new cells are generated. Under the proper care and conditions, the stem cells divide continously to form “daughter cells”. Next, the daughter cells have two options; one, to become a new generation of stem cells, or two, to become an entirely whole different type of cell. Because they have no designated purpose or function in the body, stem cells can be transformed into a wide variety of other cells, ranging from muscle to blood, to even brain cells.
Stem cells are the focus of a recently founded branch in science called regenerative medicine, or more specifically, stem cell therapy. Scientists believe stem cells will allow them to cure numerous diseases and create new muscle tissues by generating healthy cells to replace the diseased ones. In a lab, these healthy cells can be grown and manipulated by researchers. The final products are then implanted into the subject in hopes of curing his or her disease.
In the past couple of years, as the need for stem cells has grown, stem cell therapy trials are now more and more common throughout the United States. For example, in October of 2008, Edgar Irastorza, a break dancer, suffered a massive heart attack. Just moments later, his heart stopped beating. Irastorza survived, but his heart suffered significant damage and could not efficiently pump blood throughout the body. His life was changed completely; he couldn’t run, he couldn’t play with his kids. He couldn’t dance. He never knew when his heart would pump the last burst of blood through his body and finally stop beating.
In an attempt to improve his quality of life, Irastorza signed up for a highly unusual research trial. The trial would involve the injection of stem cells into his heart; the stem cells would be expected to differentiate into the cardiac muscle required for heart function Researchers began by withdrawing adult stem cells from his bone marrow and inserting them into his heart. These bone marrow cells then transformed into cardiac muscle cells, repairing the damaged heart tissues. Within a few short years, Edgar was dancing and following old routines without any problems.
Scientists have been steadily progressing in stem cell research, conducting thousands of trials to treat patients with heart disease, diabetes, blood cancers, and a variety of other conditions. However, numerous challenges remain, one of which is figuring out which cell type is the best match for certain conditions. For example, injecting a stem cell into a patient might easily solve his or her health issue, but the cell may also have no effect or, in the worst case scenario, seed a tumor that may not be noticeable for years.
A case like this was observed in a woman who participated in a clinical trial in Portugal. Stem cells were taken from her nose and injected into her spine in order to heal a back injury. The therapy was deemed a failure when the woman’s back grew a tumorlike mass requiring surgical removal.
But why is stem cell therapy so rare? If so much time and attention is given to these stem cell therapies, why are there not more successful stories and cases, such as Edgar Irastorza’s? When asked this question, Dr. Scadden of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute stated, “no one would say [stem cell therapy] has fully delivered, but many thousands are alive today because of it and the smaller-scale, very real triumphs along the way. And those triumphs increase with every year.” Using stem cells to routinely treat disease will take time, but as Dr. Scadden states, “when we look back 20 years from now, I think medicine and human health will be transformed by it.”