"Now science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers that have for so long been beyond our grasp."
- Nancy Reagan
Stem cells are specialized cells in the body that can grow and change (differentiate) into a specific type of cell such as a muscle cell, or skin cell. We have over 250 different cell types in our bodies and as cells age, become damaged and die they are replaced by stem cells. There are basically two kinds of stem cells, embryonic and adult stem cells. Embryonic cells are the kind found in embryos, developing fetal animals. These kinds of of stem cells are known as pluripotent, or able to become almost any kind of cell. It was clear very early in this research that there might be vast potential for treating various diseases using these cells.
Stem cell research began back in the 1950s by a man studying teratomas in rats. His original mandate was to prove that cigarette paper and not tobacco was the health culprit of smoking when one of his test rats developed a scrotal teratoma, or little teeth and hair where they shouldn’t be. By the 1970s he had identified the cells causing teratomas as pluripotent embryonic stem cells. In 1981, Martin Evans and Gail Martin from the University of Cambridge and UC San Francisco respectively derived the first pluripotent stem cell from the embryos of mice fueling the excitement behind stem cell research. But the fact that they came from embryos made the research extremely controversial. In 1988 a procedure was created for creating a line of stem cells derived from human embryos and the controversy grew to epic proportions.
This week, July 5th, we celebrate twenty years since the birth of the cloned sheep, Dolly in 1996. With the birth of the first cloned mammal, stem cells and cloning were viewed in the same light by people who believed that we were now playing God. In 2001, President Bush called for the restriction of federal funding for research on stem cells obtained from human embryos because the technology required the destruction of human life. Then, in 2006, Japanese researcher, Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University discovered a way to make stem cells that were similar to embryonic stem cells from adult cells by inserting certain genes eliminating the need to use embryos for research. In March of 2009, President Obama lifted the stem cell funding ban.
It is just now that new therapies based on embryonic stem cell research are being tested. At the same time, another form of stem cell found in many of our tissues, also have the ability to become new cells. Adult stem cells are those that exist in animals after they are born in order to repair and replace dying cells and regenerate damaged tissue. At the same time that embryonic stem cells were being discovered back in the 1950s it was also discovered that we have a type of stem cell in our blood, known as hematopoietic stem cells. And a little later we learned about stem cells in our bone marrow called bone marrow stromal cells, or simply mesenchymal stem cells. Today we now know that most of the tissues of our bodies contain some sort of stem cell, even the brain and heart, which were once thought incapable of self-repair.
Today it is adult stem cells that are being used throughout the World in therapies ranging from Autism to Heart Disease. It was learned by clinics that they no longer had to harvest stem cells from the blood or bone marrow. Instead, stem cells are harvested from adipose (fat) tissue, which contains a very high concentration of stem cells. Adult stem cells are injected into the body where they respond to inflammatory signals in damaged or dying cells. The stem cell then differentiates into that type of cell and replaces the damaged cell with a healthy new cell.
There is some concern among medical scientists that this kind of unregulated treatment could possibly lead to cancer (remember those teratomas?), and they prefer to wait for the results of clinical trials and FDA approval, a process that can take a considerable amount of time. Because of this wait time, charlatans have arisen in the industry and stem cell researchers have asked people to take a Buyer Beware attitude, as many of the clinics offer therapies that have not proven effective through scientific testing. When considering whether a clinic has a legitimate therapy here are some red flags:
- Healing claims are made primarily through patient testimonials
- Claims of "no risk." Remember that all medical procedures have risk.
- The same stem cells are used for many different types of therapies.
To assist in your evaluation of therapies, the International Society for Stem Cell Research has a free patient handbook on stem cell therapies that can be downloaded here
So how do these clinics avoid the rigorous FDA approval? There is a loophole that allows them to use cells from your own body that are minimally manipulated and not induced to create tissues other than what they were originally intended to create.
An alternative to the expensive and often risky stem cell clinic path is to find a clinical trial involving the condition you would like cured. Visit https://clinicaltrials.gov and in the search box type “stem cell” and the name of the condition like “heart disease”. This will show you a list of both active and completed trials.
In our quest to live longer, and overcome the illness that often ends our lives before we would choose, we are driven to make risky decisions when traditional medicine does not have the answers we need. Instead we start Googling for the answers we seek. I am guilty of that, and it eventually led me on my personal journey toward better health and living longer. I have long been excited by the possibilities that stem cells have for reversing the conditions that kill or changed us. But, the list of miracle cures on some of these websites is unsubstantiated by actual medical evidence and you are taking your life, and your pocketbook in hand when taking the risk of using these clinical services.
In wrapping up this article on stem cell therapies I want to mention an ethical concern that if I was not married to a deaf person I would have never understood. Because modern science now has the ability to change us, change our capabilities, overcome conditions that people deem as handicaps, it doesn’t mean that a person may choose this therapy. When you develop into the person you are, complete in your own self, armed with the abilities you were given, which may be different from the abilities of others, it does not mean you are broken and should be fixed. It’s wonderful that people have more choices to explore who they are. I, myself, dream of a “make me smarter” pill. But to take it would be my choice, as it would change who I am now.
As always, live longer,