Stem cell treatments hold the exciting possibility of alleviating a great deal of human suffering and mortality. Unfortunately current existing stem cell treatments can be quite costly and are not widely accessible throughout the world. Others have shown promise but still require much research to ensure they are safe and consistently successful.
Current Stem Cell Treatments
Perhaps the most common stem cell treatment or at least the most commonly known, is a bone marrow transplant. In this treatment, a patient who has a disease such as leukaemia has their cancer cells destroyed by radiation or chemotherapy treatment. This treatment also destroys any healthy cells alongside cancer ones. The patient then receives an infusion of healthy, functioning stem cells from a suitable donor. These stem cells travel from the blood to the marrow, where they produce the white blood cells, platelets and red blood cells that are necessary for functions such as immunity, clotting and oxygen transport.
Potential Stem Cell Treatments
Although some of the following treatments have been successfully performed on human subjects, they are still considered potential treatments due to the infancy of their use and the lack of thorough scientific testing. With many stem cell studies currently underway into these areas, it is hoped that these will, one day, become widely used.
Spinal Cord Injuries
Research has shown that when paralysed mice are injected with human embryonic stem cells, they have shown the ability to walk. Stem cells were capable of replenishing neurons and the basis of this treatment could be extended to other similar injuries.
Heart disease is a huge killer in the western world and the quest for effective treatments is an important one. Researchers have shown success in treating disorders of the heart with adult stem cells derived from other tissues. The limits on embryonic stem cell research in many parts of the world have led to intense efforts for research into adult stem cells. After suffering from a heart attack, the damaged heart cells can’t regenerate and repair themselves, which severely narrows treatment options for patients. The potential for stem cells to provide a source of healthy, functioning cardiac cells would offer enormous benefit for the millions of people suffering from heart conditions.
Embryonic stem cells have been used to treat blindness and other consequences of retinal diseases. Researchers utilise the properties of embryonic stem cells to regenerate vision. By transplanting stem cells in sheets over the damaged retina of a patient, the stem cells impart proper function to the eye and restore vision. The procedure still has a highly variable success rate and further studies should hopefully refine the standards and techniques used such that more people who suffer from retinal diseases can benefit from stem cell therapy.
Lou Gehrig’s Disease
Lou Gehrig’s disease is a degenerative condition affecting the motor neurons in the brain and spinal chord. Laboratory experiments have found that upon injection of stem cells into the spinal cord of rodents afflicted with a disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s, they were able to walk again due to restored functioning of nerve cells.
Stem cell treatments can heal a very broad range of medical conditions but there still needs to be more research conducted to ensure a higher rate of success. With the exception of bone marrow transplants, which have been used for several decades now, stem cell treatments are still relatively new and require more extensive testing before they can be regularly used. Most scientists will agree, however, that stem cells hold great potential for treating disease and it is hoped that new treatments will continually be developed.