Loss of needed cells is one cause of age-related degeneration; this comes in many flavors, however, ranging from the loss of dopamine cells in the brain that leads to Parkinson's disease to the loss of muscle mass called sarcopenia. It is unclear in many specific cases whether - and to what degree - this loss is secondary to other biochemical damage that accumulates with age. Still, it seems obvious that stem cell research, and the regenerative medicine derived from new knowlege, will play an important role in addressing some forms of detrimental change involved in aging - and the suffering and death that follows.
There are most likely limits to what can be done to lengthen our lives if we focus on stem cells and regenerative medicine alone for the next couple of decades: you might take a look back at a couple of recent posts on that topic:
After that, it's all an open road ahead. It's hard to speak cogently of what will be possible in 2040, for example - computers vastly more powerful, biotechnology vastly more capable, a molecular manufacturing technology base at some stage of development, medical nanorobots out in force, and so on. Cancer will be ancient history in much of the world, alongside heart disease; how far along will we have come to extending healthy life spans or eliminating neurodegenerative disorders by that time? It'll be well worth doing your best to ensure you are around to see it!
Back to the present day, however, and researchers are still taking the first steps with the new tools of the biotechnology revolution in this first decade of the 21st century. Stem cell research, like cancer research, demonstrates what can be accomplished when the will and funding are present. A recent conference overview from the New York Academy of Sciences gives a feel for where the field of stem cell research stands today, in comparison to the golden future of healing that lies ahead:
The recurring theme of the day-long conference was, exactly what do we know about stem cells, and what can we do with them? Scientists from around the world discussed the most recent findings in the most promising research areas: somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and neurology.
Scientists working with human cells are interested in using SCNT both as a reproductive technology and as a way of producing stem cell lines, which they hope to use to replace a variety of tissues that don't regenerate on their own.
Yet all stem cell researchers face the problem that the path from totipotent stem cell to fully differentiated cell is not clear. Some scientists are tracing the lineage of cells using fluorescent markers while others are looking for genes and growth factors that are required to commit a cell to a specific developmental pathway.
Neuroscientists face the same challenges as other researchers trying to replace fully differentiated nonregenerating cell types. Thus, they are also studying basic stem cell biology, cell lineages, and factors required to stimulate differentiation to the appropriate cell fate. Once these difficulties are surmounted, scientists may be faced with the extraordinary complexity of restoring appropriate connections in the brain and spinal cord.
Stem cell biologists are attempting to recapitulate development from beginning to end, and this is no easy feat. But the enormous benefits that will be reaped upon success ensure that the endeavor will not be abandoned any time soon.
A great deal of work is yet to be accomplished - yet another illustration of the importance of materially supporting medical research as an investment in your future health and longevity. Why stand to one side and wait when the job might not be done in time to help you?
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