Benefits of Stem Cells
With all the controversy surrounding stem cells you may have missed hearing about many of the benefits for the health and medical fields. You may not even be aware that stem cells already have many applications for treating disease. Their potential to treat even more diseases in the future means that scientists are working hard to learn about how stem cells function and how they can treat some of the more serious diseases affecting the world.
Stem Cells and Human Development
Stem cells have enormous potential in health and medical research but to fully harness this potential, scientists are studying how stem cells transform, or differentiate, into the diverse range of specialised cells that make humans what they are today. Because diseases such as cancer or conditions such as birth defects are thought to occur because of problems in the differentiation process, an understanding of the development that happens in normal cells will help scientists treat the developmental errors that can occur.
Stem Cells and Cell-Based Therapies
Another potential application of stem cells is to form cells and tissues for medical therapies. Currently, it is donated organs and tissues that are substituted for damaged or dysfunctional ones. Sadly, the number of people awaiting a transplant is much higher than the number of available organs. Transplant waiting lists are enormous and many people die awaiting transplants. Stem cells offer a viable source of replacement cells to treat diseases and can potentially reduce the morbidity and mortality for those awaiting transplants. Some of the areas that stem cells can benefit include:
- Parkinson's disease
- Type I diabetes
- Burn victims
- Cardiovascular diseases
By directing stem cells to differentiate into specialised cell types, there is the exciting possibility to provide a renewable source of replacement cells for those suffering from diseases.
The potential to reverse diseases is also not a foreign one. For example, a patient who has suffered from a heart attack and sustained heart damage could have the damaged tissue replaced by healthy new muscle cells. The destruction of brain cells in conditions such as Parkinson's disease can hopefully be reversed with the replacement of new, healthy and functioning brain cells. Even more promising is the potential to address genetic defects that are present from birth by restoring function and health with the introduction of normal healthy cells that do not have these defects.
Burn victims tend to endure an enormous amount of pain from their wounds as well as frustration from the challenges of healing. Instead of donor tissues being donated, stem cells could be used to produce new and healthy tissues. This is essentially similar to therapies already being used, such as bone marrow transplants, where stem cells create different specialised blood cells. Scientists aim to locate and remove specific stem cells from a tissue and then trigger them to differentiate outside of the body before transplanting them back into the patient to replace damaged tissues. In burn victims, a very small piece of the skin can be progressively grown, allowing doctors to cover a burn that is often much larger than the original size of the skin piece.
Stem Cells and Drug Testing
Stem cells have an important benefit for the pharmaceutical field. New drugs can be tested on stem cells to assess their safety before testing drugs on animal and human models. For example, a cancer cell line could be created to test an anti-tumour drug. If the conditions can be perfectly replicated, testing drugs could provide very accurate results.
The current benefits of stem cell usage are already well documented and it is expected that continued research will pave the way for new treatments. For those suffering from serious diseases, stem cells offer hope for effective treatment or perhaps even a reversal of the disease. Time will confirm the full success of stem cell therapies and continued research should teach us more about using stem cells to treat debilitating medical conditions.