Regenerative medicine helps natural healing processes to work faster and better. These technologies and techniques create an environment in which missing or damaged tissue that would not ordinarily regrow in fact regenerates fully.
Strategies presently under development include transplants of stem cells, the manipulation of the patient's own stem cells, and the use of scaffold materials that emit biochemical signals to spur stem cells into action. Regenerative therapies have been demonstrated (in trials or the laboratory) to heal broken bones, bad burns, blindness, deafness, heart damage, nerve damage, Parkinson's disease, and a range of other conditions. Work continues to bring these advances to patients.
Rejuvenating Aging Stem Cells
Research undertaken since 2004 suggests that the stem cells in the adult body - which become less effective at their job of repair with age - could be rejuvenated, restored to action with the right biochemical cues. Furthermore, researchers already regularly manipulate the genes and biochemistry of stem cells taken from partients for use in trials of new therapies: there is every reason to expect that future medicine will involve the repair and restoration of aged stem cells prior to their use in regenerative medicine.
Reports on a few of the more promising applications of stem cell technologies in recent years are linked below:
Regenerative medicine will help to produce extended healthy longevity, as we will be able to repair some of the damage caused by aging, organ by organ. Aging damages every part of our bodies, however - including the stem cells required for regenerative therapies! Until we can address the root causes of age-related degeneration, we must learn how to regenerate every part of the human body.
We must also become capable of reliably preventing and defeating cancer in all its forms and repairing age-related damage to the brain in situ - increasing risk of cancer with age cannot be prevented through regenerative medicine, and the brain cannot simply be replaced with new tissue. These tasks will be a mammoth undertaking. Nonetheless, like all great advances in medicine, it is a worthy, noble cause. Today, hundreds of millions of people live in pain and suffering - and will eventually die - as a result of degenerative conditions of aging. Today, we stand within reach of alleviating all this death and anguish, preventing it from ever occuring again. We should rise to the challenge!
Creating Recellularized Organs
As of 2008, researchers have found what may be a shortcut to the growth of replacement organs from a patient's own stem cells. Called recellularization or decellularization, the process takes a human or animal donor organ and chemically strips the cells from it, leaving only the scaffolding of the extracellular matrix behind. Stem cells from the organ recipient are then used to repopulate the scaffold, creating a functioning organ ready for transplant that has little to no risk of rejection.
Some of the most impressive demonstrations of regenerative medicine since the turn of the century have used varying forms of stem cells - embryonic, adult, and most recently induced pluripotent stem cells - to trigger healing in the patient. A great deal of press attention, for example, has been given to successes in alleviating life-threatening heart conditions. However, successes have been demonstrated in repairing damage in other organs - such as the liver, kidneys, and so forth.
What Are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are unprogrammed cells in the human body that can continue dividing forever and can change into other types of cells. Because stem cells can become bone, muscle, cartilage and other specialized types of cells, they have the potential to treat many diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and cancer. They are found in embryos at very early stages of development (embyonic stem cells) and in some adult organs, such as bone marrow and brain (adult stem cells). You can find more information on stem cells at the following sites:
- Wikipedia on stem cells
- Stem Cells at the National Institutes of Health
- Stem Cell Basics from the NIH
Embryonic and adult stem cells appear to have different effects, limitations and abilities. The current scientific consensus is that adult stem cells are limited in their utility, and that both embryonic and adult stem cell research will be required to develop cures for severe and degenerative diseases. As of 2009, researchers are also making rapid progress in reprogramming stem cells and creating embryonic-like stem cells from ordinary cells.
Stem cell research is a hot topic in the press. It has been in the news non-stop for a good number of years: not a week goes by without the announcement of a new and amazing advance. The first crop of simple stem cell therapies for regenerative medicine might be only a few years away from widespread availability. "Simple," because these therapies are on the level of transfusions. Stem cells are cultured from the patient's own tissue and then injected back into the body - new medicine doesn't get much simpler than that in this day and age. Researchers tell us that we are on the verge of a revolution in medicine as large as early successes in blood transfusion or controlling infection.
If you read enough of the literature, stem cells from your own body begin to sound like a miracle cure-all; extract them, culture them, return them to the body, and injured tissue begins to heal. It isn't anywhere near that simple, however, and this throwaway summary hides the many years of hard work by scientists to bring us to this point, as well as the many years of hard work ahead. Research continues, with a tone of excitement coming from the scientific community. They know they are onto something big.
Last updated: December 7th 2010.