Will Stem Cells Make a New You?

© 2014 Dr. Sharon Norling

Do you wish you could look younger without injecting your face with a toxin like Botox? Ads now are seen for “facial rejuvenation” using stem cells. Do you have a painful joint or illness which maybe not be getting better? Are stem cells an option?

Newspapers, magazines, radio and TV shows such as 60 minutes, CNN and The Doctors have recently reported on stem cells. The history of research on adult stem cells began about 50 years ago. In fact, blood forming stem cells from bone marrow have been used in transplants for 40 years. Scientists now have evidence that stem cells exist in the brain and the heart. It was not until the 1990s that scientists agreed that the adult brain does contain stem cells that are able to generate the brain’s nerve cells.

Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells that are able to differentiate into specialized cell types. Commonly, stem cells come from two main sources:

  • Embryonic stem cells
  • Adult stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells

Embryonic stem cells, as their name suggests, are derived from embryos. Most embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in cell cultures in fertility clinics’ laboratories and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body.

Diseases that might be treated by transplanting cells generated from human embryonic stem cells include Parkinson’s, diabetes, traumatic spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy, heart disease, and vision and hearing loss.

Adult stem cells

Adult or somatic stem cells exist throughout the body after embryonic development and are found inside of different types of tissue. These stem cells have been found in tissues such as the brain, bone marrow, blood, blood vessels, teeth, testis, skeletal muscles, skin, and the liver. They remain in a quiescent or non-dividing state for years until activated by disease or tissue injury.

Adult stem cells can divide or self-renew indefinitely, enabling them to generate a range of cell types from the originating organ or even regenerate the entire original organ. It is generally thought that adult stem cells are limited in their ability to differentiate based on their tissue of origin, but there is some evidence to suggest that they can differentiate to become other cell types according to the Mayo Clinic. There have been significant advances in work with adult stem cells, and more studies are under way.

Today stem cells can be obtained by drawing blood from a vein. The blood is then sent to a specific lab were the particles can be separated from the blood. These can then be given back to the individual intravenously or injected directly in a joint. In the past stems cells were most often harvested from bone marrow, embryos, or fat cells. If the stem cells are harvested from another individual there is a risk developing an auto-immune reaction (rejection) in the individual receiving the stem cells. However, today the technology has advanced so stem cells can be drawn from the person and given back to the same individual.

What are stem cells, and why are they important?

Stem cells differ from other kinds of cells in the body. Stem cells have the remarkable potential to develop into many different cell types in the body during early life and growth. In addition, in many tissues they serve as a sort of internal repair system, dividing basically without limit to replenish other cells. When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential either to remain a stem cell or become another type of cell with a more specialized function, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell.

Stem cells are important for living organisms for many reasons. In some adult tissues, such as bone marrow, muscle, and brain, discrete populations of adult stem cells generate replacements for cells that are lost through normal wear and tear, injury, or disease. Professional athletes have used stem cells to repair injuries or damage from wear and tear.

Regenerating the cartilage-making process in the body has become a primary goal in orthopedic medicine. A small molecule dubbed kartogenin encourages stem cells to take on the characteristics of cells that make cartilage, a new study shows. The findings in Science provide new clues in the long-running effort to find ways to regenerate cartilage, a central puzzle in the battle against osteoarthritis.

Given their unique regenerative abilities, stem cells offer new potentials for treating diseases. However, much work remains to be done in the laboratory and the clinic to understand how to use these cells for cell based therapies to treat disease. Research on stem cells continues to advance knowledge about how healthy cells replace damaged cells in adult organisms. Stem cell research is one of the most fascinating areas of contemporary biology.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) research on adult stem cells has generated a great deal of excitement. The primary roles of adult stem cells in a living organism are to maintain and repair the tissue in which they are found. Scientists have found adult stem cells in many more tissues than they once thought possible. This finding has led researchers and clinicians to ask whether adult stem cells could be used for transplants. Stem cells may prove to be just the answer to regenerate the body from head to toe.

While the research continues the clinical use is still considered experimental. As noted the stem cell therapy is effective for many conditions but is not an FDA approved treatment for any condition. It is provided as a service and as a practice of medicine and the results varies from individual to individual.

Written By Dr. Sharon Norling, MBA