Stem cell therapy encompasses new technologies and therapies that aim to replace damaged cells with healthy new ones. Cells may be dysfunctional due to any number of reasons such as genetics, disease, injury or aging. Currently, stem cells offer the potential to treat cancer, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries and diabetes, among other serious diseases. Unfortunately, there are several challenges faced by researchers that must be overcome before stem cell therapies can become a successful reality for those suffering from disease. Researchers do expect to eventually move beyond these challenges but the unfortunate reality is that those suffering from disease often have little time to wait for treatment.
Identifying Stem Cells in Adult Tissues
A major difficulty that scientists continue to encounter is the identification of stem cells in adult tissues. These tissues contain many different types of cells and an attempt to locate the often scarce numbers of stem cells in tissues that could contain thousands of different cells is difficult at best. The research involved is complex and even after cells are isolated, the process to successfully trigger differentiation into the desired cell type is another challenge for researchers. This requires an understanding of stem cell control and regulation that has yet to be fully gained. In addition, researchers must also use the correct laboratory medium, or solution, to coax the growth and this has proven to be difficult.
Stem Cell Integration
If scientists do manage to identify, isolate and trigger the appropriate differentiate of stem cells, the cells still must be implanted into the patient and accepted among the native body cells. This success is therefore dependent on effective integration into the patient’s body systems and other cells. For example, if cardiac cells are implanted, they must be able to beat in sync with the patient’s own heart cells. For a patient who suffers from a neural based disease, any neural cells must integrate into the complicated network of natural neural cells if they are to effectively function and replace damaged cells.
Immunological rejection is a major barrier to successful stem cell transplants. When a patient’s immune system views the transplanted cells as ‘foreign’ rather than ‘self,’ it wages an attack on the newly transplanted cells. Recipients of the transplant usually have to take strong immunosuppressive drugs to reduce the chances of rejection but these drugs then leave the patient vulnerable to infection by any other viruses or microbes in the environment.
As scientists learn more and more about stem cells, they hope one day to develop effective cancer treatments based on stem cell research. However, stem cells also have the ability to foster tumour growth and caution must be taken before stem cell therapy becomes commonplace. Cancer is generally a consequence that occurs when cells abnormally divide. The challenge for scientists is to find a balance between directing cell growth into specialized tissues that can replace damaged ones, and also ensuring that cells don’t excessively grow and become cancer cells.
Despite the numerous challenges facing researchers, stem cells still hold promise for treating many diseases. Continued research should yield more information to ensure that stem cells treat disease with safety and success.