The Stem Cell Saga: Research Today, Repair Tomorrow

AllieBeatty Health Guide
  • Shortly after President Obama took office, he lifted the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. For the people affected by incurable and life-altering diseases - stem cell research has provided great promise. The medical frontiers with stem cell research as our Sherpa will open new doors to healing, regeneration and possibly the growth of new organs. Full speed ahead we move to consider the opportunity cost of the good, the bad and the unexpected in stem cell research.


    The latest research on stem cell promise in diabetes applies to diabetic foot ulcers. It appears that stem cells can be used to promote healing of foot ulcers caused by diabetes. More than half of all lower limb amputations done in the U.S. each year are related to complications from diabetes. Researchers know that wounds heal so well in fetuses that no scar can be visible at birth. It is therefore possible that, when fetal stem cells are transplanted onto diabetic ulcers, they reactivate a fetal program in the recipient to allow those adult ulcers to repair as efficiently as fetal wounds do. The ironical truth about this healing approach is the fact that diabetes tends to age the cells of the body at a faster rate. It does even out the playing field when you seek a little help from fetal stem cells. Can this be done without damaging the fetus? I'm sure the research will be the top topic of many scientific debates in days to come.

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    Retinopathy is yet another diabetes complication showing potential remedy from stem cells.  Diabetes can cause retinopathy, a condition affecting retinal cells in the eye, leading to blindness. Similar to the condition known as age-related macular degeneration - stem cells can regenerate the cells in the eye affected by this condition.  With over 500,000 adults currently experiencing blindness due to age-related macular degeneration and another 25 million Americans suffering with diabetes -future blindness is yet another condition that potentially stands to improve with stem cell therapy.

    Without getting too science fiction with this idea - it has been shown already that the human bladder can be regenerated with the assistance of existing cells. Last year, researchers grew a beating rat heart in the lab with the help of heart cells from newborn rats, preliminary proof of the stem cells assisting in the regeneration of whole organs. Who's to say stem cells cannot regenerate other organs besides the heart? For example, kidney failure will no longer result in lifelong dialysis sentence. Instead medical technology will someday have the ability to grow a new kidney. A new kidney would thus liberate the patient from the part-time job of dialysis, 3 times a week.  How far off are we? The bladder is among the simplest organs in the body to create - very few vascular complications. I digress. A rat heart is one thing. The kidney is a horse of a different color. It is among the most sophisticated organ - having a myriad of vascular roadmaps. 


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    Not too long ago, the assuring aftermath of a controversial procedure involving stem cells in newly onset type I diabetes was presented in Washington D.C. and reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study was designed by Dr. Richard Burt, of Northwestern University and conducted in Brazil, South America. The study involved harvesting stem cells from the patient's own bone-marrow. The stem cells were then transplanted and the immune system was heavily suppressed while the stem cells grew into insulin-producing beta cells. The success of the procedure was measured with levels of C-peptides, which show how well the body is producing insulin. Twenty of the 23 patients who received the treatment became insulin-free - one for as long as four years. Eight had to return to insulin injections, but at reduced levels. Although this is yet another magical feat of stem cell research- there is inherent danger involved when you totally suppress the immune system. For this reason, Dr. Richard Burt took his domestic protocol to the Ethics Committee for approval in Brazil. The United States was not going to allow this research to occur in the USA.


    The medical frontiers are open and unlimited with stem cell research. However this does not trump the existing dangers of directing stem cell to do as you please. There are great uncertainties as to the safety and long-term repercussions of such treatments. Seasoned stem cell researchers are aware of the potential dangers involving cancer. Without research we will never know what can and cannot be useful in treating and curing disease. At this point in time stem cell research is what it is. It is only research and yet to be proven safe and effective.  As we continue to learn the benefits and risks of stem cell research, it is reassuring to know that the ball is in motion. Until the FDA is thoroughly satisfied with the results of such research, we will continue to marvel at the revelations of modern science.

Published On: April 22, 2009