Being in the Know: The Latest Developments in Stem Cell Research
(BeWellBuzz) Before we get started on path breaking stem cell research news, let’s start with the basics. In simple terms, ‘stem cells’ is an umbrella term for cells that have the ability to divide and segregate themselves to perform specific functions before producing more stem cells of their own. This process is common in all multicellular organisms.
There are two kinds of stem cells:
- Embryonic stem (ES) cells- These are cells from an early stage embryo or blastocyst which is formed around 5 days after fertilization. Though ES cells go on to multiply and become specialized, they have to be derived or isolated from the embryo for research and development purposes. This requires the termination of the embryo, which in turn has led to a global debate over its ethical implications.
- Adult stem cells- Adult or somatic stem cells are cells that mostly go on to restore damaged tissues and dying cells. Due to this feature, they have the ability to differentiate and renew themselves endlessly. As opposed to ES cells, adult stem cells are not considered to be as controversial for science and medical purposes since they are derived from adult tissues, not from terminated human embryos.
Adult stem cells can be sourced from adipose or fatty tissue, bone marrow, and blood. Researchers are now banking on umbilical cord blood as a less controversial way of conducting research on embryonic stem cells and their potential to control or cure various diseases.
Stem cell research has tremendous scope for therapeutic purposes. Apart from cloning and regenerating damaged tissue which is the outcome of injury or disease, many scientists believe that stem cells can also be used to treat the following in the future:
- Bone marrow diseases
- Cardiac problems
- Neurological conditions
- Celiac disease
- Vision problems
- Birth defects
Stem cell research in the news
In August 2010, President Barack Obama’s executive order that expanded the scope of embryonic stem cell research was quashed by Judge Lamberth, a federal district judge, on the grounds that Obama’s order violated the existing ban on federal money being used to terminate embryos. Until then, only private money could be used to fund stem cell studies.
What this meant was that bodies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal institutions would not be permitted to fund ES cell research studies or experiments unless they were given a go ahead from the court.
The court ruling created an uproar in scientific circles, which had made a clear distinction between the termination of embryos for research purposes, and research conducted on already destroyed ES cells, such as cast-off embryos from fertility centers. This only went on to further the schism between conservative groups and the research and medical communities.
That was less than two years ago. Today, however, there have been innumerable developments pertaining to stem cell research. Some of them are listed below:
November 2011 was when the world’s oldest and most reputed stem cell firm Geron Corporation announced that it was halting its trials and research on stem cell therapeutic cures. This happened after the company failed to bring out any significant breakthroughs in its ongoing study on the effects of stem cell therapy on paralyzed and bedridden spinal injury patients.
Geron Corporation’s decision to put a stop to its stem cell research efforts came as a shock to many, because the company had been a benchmark for years as far as ES cell studies and developments were concerned.
- Earlier this month, it was revealed that stem cell therapy could, in all possibility, be used to reverse the effects of aging in patients with multiple sclerosis. The research, which was overseen by a group of American and English scientists from The Cambridge Centre for Myelin Repair at the University of Cambridge and Harvard University, was conducted on older mice that were exposed to the monocytes of younger mice. It was determined that the gradual decline of the nerve’s myelin sheath could be significantly controlled by stem cells. This was a huge breakthrough, because myelin sheath degradation in the brain is one of the most common outcomes in multiple sclerosis or MS.
The other symptoms and/or outcomes of MS that could potentially be reversed or halted with stem cell therapy include hampered intellectual ability and physical skills, loss of vision, and bladder control, and sensations.
- Another breakthrough surfaced in January 2012 when it was discovered that stem cells can help reverse Type 1 diabetes. The findings of the study, which was conducted at Chicago’s University of Illinois, established that umbilical cord-derived stem cells could, in all likelihood, enable insulin production in the pancreas and bolster the functioning of the T cells.
Despite the recent positive news about stem cell research, there was no dearth of cautionary headlines that warned people about the probable demerits of this therapy, particularly when it came to ‘sham doctors’. For instance, CBS News is to air a segment on its popular show ’60 minutes’ about a Dr. Dan Ecklund, a Wisconsin educated practitioner who promised fake stem cell cures to numerous desperate people despite having a revoked medical license.
- Qatar took a step ahead when it came to encouraging discussions on the subject of stem cell therapy in spite of its mostly theocratic laws. The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, in collaboration with the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, has organized The Qatar International Conference on Stem Cell Science and Policy in order to explore the implications of stem cell research in line with the country’s religious, ethical, and societal constraints.
- China has been notorious for the propagation of unlicensed stem cell treatment clinics, but the nation’s Ministry of Health has declared a total crackdown to ensure that only centers approved and certified by the ministry and the Food and Drug Administration of China would be permitted to operate. This is a significant development in a country that has one of the highest instances of unproven and unregulated stem cell cures worldwide.