Stem cell research was big news back when Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman in the 1970s and 1980s, became famous again in the 2000s for trying to get laws changed so that research with human embryonic stem cells could expand.
After breaking his neck in a horse-riding accident, he used his fame to become an advocate for stem cell research funding. The big problem with this kind of research was that it typically required human embryos that had been donated to science after fertilization therapy for women who were trying to get pregnant.
Because of the deep moral issue, I wanted to understand more. For one thing, what on earth was a stem cell? Why were scientists all over the world studying them with such excitement?
Every cell in your body is programmed by the genes inside it to do a specific thing. Muscle cells cannot do what blood cells do. Blood cells cannot do what nerve cells do.
But every living creature that grows from an egg begins as an embryo made up of a few cells. Every one of those cells has the ability to become whatever the creature will need. When these cells were discovered, they were christened stem cells because of this incredible power.
Scientists looked at the stem cells in a mouse embryo and saw a future where they could grow new hearts and repair nerve damage so that people like Christopher Reeve could walk again.
A new branch of medical science was born. However, the discovery of these cells brought with it more questions than answers. How did a stem cell learn what it would turn into? What turned the genetic code on and off? Could stem cells be safely grown in the laboratory?
If researchers could figure out how to control stem cells, they could use them to make tissues, even replace organs and repair damaged nerves. But that kind of research would have to involve the use of human embryos, lots of them.
Ethical issues arose. Human embryos from fertilization clinics were being donated for stem cell research. These “test tube babies” were a moral issue.
Finding stem cells in other places
Even before embryonic stem cells were discovered, researchers found stem cells in the bone marrow and intestines of adults. Since that time, microscopic searching has found these cells everywhere, even in the brain where they were not expected to exist.
These cells sit quietly, waiting until they are needed to repair the tissues around them. Could they be used like embryonic stem cells to fix cancers and heart disease and diabetes?
Adult stem cells are not like embryonic stem cells. They are not totally unspecialized. For example, bone marrow stem cells can become many types of blood cells but cannot become heart tissue.
New research has developed a third kind of stem cell, what is essentially a “reprogrammed” adult stem cell, known as an “induced pluripotent stem cell” or iPSC. These are forced by outside means, usually a virus, to act like embryonic stem cells. There is hope that these iPSCs can be injected into a damaged tissue and regenerate it.
It might be possible at some future date to inject these cells into your pancreas where they will make new beta cells, effectively reversing diabetes. People who are now dependent on insulin could stop taking it after a while as their bodies began making insulin for them.
However, progress is very slow. Growing stem cells takes time. Protocols have to be followed. Researchers seem to be going in so many different directions, because the applications are vast. There are few established methods everyone can agree on.
On Valentine’s Day in 2012, a report surfaced about heart attack victims who were injected with their own heart stem cells in a clinical trial. Over time their scar tissue was reduced by half.
Clinical trials like these show the great promise in using your own stem cells to regenerate and repair. But the only approved therapy in the United States right now involves bone marrow transplants for conditions such as certain blood cancers and some metabolic and immune system disorders.
According to stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler, PhD, “any other stem cell treatment you see advertised on Facebook or Google or elsewhere that indicates it will be given to you inside the U.S. may in fact be illegal and unsafe.”
If you are chosen for an FDA-approved clinical trial, the treatment will be free; be clear about what you are signing up for and what is expected of you.
Reports of success are coming back from places like India, the United Kingdom, and Japan, as well as the United States. Here is an example: In Type 1 diabetes, lymphocytes (T-cells, a type of white blood cell) destroy beta cells. Several people with Type 1 had some of their T-cells separated from their blood and exposed to donor cord blood stem cells.
When the lymphocytes were injected back into their blood, insulin needs dropped, and in some cases the person’s A1C fell as well. The researcher called this “Stem Cell Educator” therapy. The T-cells seemed to have learned not to attack their own beta cells while they were in contact with the stem cells from the donor cord blood.
Reports like these help to keep hope alive. I admit it is hard to watch stem cell research because progress is maddeningly slow, while the potential benefits could be spectacular.
My biggest hope is that adult stem cells hold the secret for an effective treatment, especially for Type 1, but also for those of us with Type 2 diabetes. In the meantime, we must keep doing the things we know will help, like taking our medications, watching what we eat, and making a difference in the lives around us. I wish you the best.
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