The term “stem cell” has become seemingly ubiquitous in modern scientific research. From the first successful bone marrow transplant to treat leukemia in 1956 to the birth of Dolly the sheep clone in 1996, stem cells have been the foundation of several groundbreaking headlines in recent times.1 However now, prominent research groups across the world are working on using stem cell therapies to treat a variety of medical issues that span the entire human body. What are stem cells, and why is the scientific community so excited about the prospects of stem cell therapies?
In short, stem cells can be defined as cells that can give rise to other types of cells. Stem cells are found in many different parts of the body and serve as internal repair and growth systems that can replenish damaged or dead cells to keep the human body functioning normally. The most important characteristic of stem cells is their ability to differentiate into different types of cells. In other words, stem cells can be prompted to grow into specialized cells such as muscle cells, brain cells, or blood cells. This innate variability is the source of growing research interest. In trying to create stem cell therapies, researchers are looking into controlling the specialization of stem cells such that they can use stem cells to regrow damaged tissues.2
There are hundreds of research trials exemplifying the versatility and viability of stem cell therapies. One striking research trial is a 2014 study in which researchers at the University of Washington were able to use stem cells to regenerate and restore damaged hearts in pigtail macaque monkeys.3 Since the hearts of these monkeys are similar to human hearts, this incredible research has opened up the possibility of using stem cells to treat heart damage in humans arising from common medical problems like heart damage resulting from heart attacks.
The researchers conducted this study by sedating and prompting heart attacks in the monkeys. The researchers then injected around one billion stem cells into the damaged areas. The use of one billion stem cells in one treatment was an unprecedented method. The stem cells were able to mature into heart muscle cells and interact with existing cells and tissues to work together and restore heart function. After a few months, the cells became fully integrated and the heart was functioning exactly as before the heart attack.
Since the researchers were able to demonstrate the effectiveness and efficiency of this treatment plan in monkey hearts, they are confident that they will be able to translate this research to human treatment.
- Gallicano, I. Stem Cells: Past-Present-Future. http://www.asgct.org/am10/program/presentations/Session_124_-_1_gallicano.pdf (accessed 10/29/16), part of ASGCT.
- NIH Stem Cell Information. https://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/1.htm (accessed 10/26/16), part of NIH.
- McCarthy, M. http://hsnewsbeat.uw.edu/story/scientists-regenerate-heart-muscle-primates (accessed 10/29/16), part of NewsBeat.