A few days ago, I found a fascinating article about a human heart. And let me tell you it is not an ordinary one. It is a fully functional beating heart created in a lab by a team of scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. How they did it? They just used stem cells and stem sell research.
This new discovery opens a whole new chapter on stem cell treatment and organ transplant, since the list of patients who need a transplant is not getting any shorter. But what do we know so far about stem cell therapy and what the future holds?
The Basics of Stem Cells
A simple definition of stem cells is this:
“Stem cell: an undifferentiated cell of a multicellular organism which is capable of giving rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, and from which certain other kinds of cell arise by differentiation.”
Stem cells — regardless of their source — have the amazing ability to divide into many different cell types in the body during growth, serve as a repair system in many tissues and give rise to specialized cell types.
There are two types of stem cells: The embryonic stem cells and the adult stem cells which work as a repair system in adults.
Adult stem cells can be found in bone marrow, lipid cells and blood. Stem cells can also be taken from the umbilical cord just after birth.
The Treatments So Far
In the late 1950s, Dr. Thomas performed the first successful bone marrow transplant to treat leukemia. Since then, bone marrow has been used to treat cancer patients with conditions such as leukemia and lymphoma and this is the only stem cell therapy that is practiced widely.
Also, a well-established stem cell treatment is the transplantation of blood stem cells to treat diseases and conditions of the blood and immune system, or to restore the blood system after treatments for specific cancers.
The latest stem cell-based treatment is called Holoclar and repairs damage to the cornea (the surface of the eye) after an injury like a chemical burn. This therapy is practiced successfully in Europe.
According to researchers and doctors, these treatments are just the tip of the iceberg. Scientists continually bring forward new information regarding the development of sources for stem cells. They hope — and so do we — to apply stem cell treatments for neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s), brain and spinal cord injury, diabetes, heart disease, deafness, even for missing teeth or hair.
Stem Cell Research: Is it OK to Create Life?
In 1998, scientists discovered how to extract stem cells from human embryos. That was unsettling for some. The ability of scientists to culture embryonic stem cells have brought up many ethical questions related to abortion and human cloning: Does life begin in the womb or at birth? Is an embryo the same as a child? Does a human embryo have rights?
Governments around the world have passed laws to regulate stem cell research. For example in the United States there are laws that prohibit the creation of embryos for stem cell research purposes. In 2001, amidst the controversies about the embryonic stem cells, US President Bush limited the federal funding to a study of hES cells. This decision was evoked in 2009 by President Obama and expanded the number of stem cell lines available to researchers.
In Europe, the creation of embryonic stem cell lines is permitted in Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In Asia hES cell research is supported by policies that allow the use of human embryos and therapeutic cloning.
Of course when we are talking about human life, religion has a strong opinion. For example, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Halperin of the Institute for Science and Jewish Law in Jerusalem, said that embryonic stem cell research is permitted so long as it has not been implanted in the womb. On the other hand, the Catholic Church opposes human embryonic stem cell research and calls it “an absolutely unacceptable act.”
At the moment researchers have alternatives to hES cells but the controversies and the question about hES cells may not go away so easily.
What the Future Has to Offer
Let’s imagine for a second that 10 years from now we can place an order to a lab and request a human heart, or a pair of kidneys maybe a limp. Imagine how many lives can be saved. According to ClinicalTrials.gov there are 211,437 studies in all 50 States and in 193 countries. That number is simply overwhelming. We may not know the outcome but these studies are trying to cure almost everything, from heart failure to a missing tooth. But are we trying to “build” a super-human who can just replenish a bad organ with a new one or do we want to eliminate diseases? And how many of us can actually have access to these treatments? I believe the next decade will answer these questions. Until then we hope that stem cell treatments will continue to perform miracles.