History Of Stem Cell Therapy
One of the “Holy Grails” of medical science is the idea of regenerative healing. If such a technique were discovered and perfected, it could, in theory, solve many of the medical issues that we have today. As a simple example, nature has already shown us that even the loss of a limb can be recovered from through regenerative healing. When a lizard is threatened and grabbed by its tail, for example, the lizard can pull itself free, tearing its own tail off.
However, that’s not the end of the story. The lizard is then able to grow back a new tail in time as if nothing ever happened. Humans, however, don’t have this type of healing capacity. If a limb is damaged beyond repair, or compromised by disease, such as an arm, or a leg, and is amputated to save the rest of the body, it doesn’t grow back. If an organ is seriously injured or compromised by illness, such as a heart, or a lung, there’s no way to get naturally regrow one, and only a transplant from a compatible donor can save that patient. If there is no compatible donor, then the transplanted organ is rejected by the body.
Now, however, medical science is taking the first steps towards achieving that dream of regenerative healing. It’s called stem cell therapy, and while it’s already proven its worth in some very specific areas of medical treatment, the technique has promise for much more.
How Does It Work?
The secret to stem cell therapy is the cell itself. Stem cells have a unique property, one that is necessary to take a fertilized egg in a mother’s womb from a single cell to a fully developed human baby with different organs. The power of stem cells is that they are “blank,” which means they have the potential to become any cell that is required. This ability to shift or “reprogram” into whatever is required is thought of as a form of “potency,” and stem cells in the womb, being the potent of all, are referred to as “pluripotent.”
By introducing stem cells into areas where disease or other types of damage have occurred, the stem cells can replace the damaged cells—even ones that normally don’t reproduce in great numbers, or at all—and turn into the cells required, healing the patient.
It All Starts With Mice
As is quite common in medical science, the potential for stem cell usage was first discovered in experimentation with lab animals. It was in laboratory mice that scientists first recognized the ability of some cells to do more than just reproduce an exact copy of themselves. The property was first discovered in the 1960s with the blood of lab mice when scientists came across “low level” stem cells in the blood, referred to as hematopoietic stem cells.
These cells were eventually regarded as “multipotent.” They could reproduce themselves and, if required, they could reproduce into the many variants of blood cells that are used in the body, but they could not turn into other non-blood related cells, such as brain or skin cells.
It was from here that scientists eventually learned more about stem cells, and discovered not only the pluripotent stem cells in mice but how to manipulate them. This made huge strides in research, as now mice could be bred with the desired genetic characteristics for experimentation, and, over the decades, medical science worked to see if this type of stem cell usage could one day be applied to humans.
The Cancer Breakthrough
In the 1980s, stem cell research had advanced sufficiently that it was felt safe enough to try on humans, with incredibly promising results. Cancer is one of the most difficult diseases to treat, because there are so many variations of it, for almost every part of the body. Cancer itself is a wide-ranging disease, with the chief cause being that, for various reasons, an organ begins to reproduce flawed/incorrect copies of itself, and these flawed cells eventually overpopulate and outnumber the healthy cells they are replacing. Eventually, this can lead to death.
Scientists used stem cell therapy to treat leukemia, a cancer threat to the blood, bone marrow, and lymphatic system. They introduced compatible stem cells into leukemia patients and found that stem cell therapy was an effective means of combating this type of cancer, and even curing it.
The Exploration Continues
In the decades since, stem cell therapy has continued to be experimented with in other areas. Embryonic stem cells, the pluripotent ones, are still the most valued, and new mothers, upon giving birth, have the option to harvest the umbilical cord blood after the birth, that is rich in stem cells and preserve for possible future use.
Now stem cell therapy usage is being explored for a variety of conditions, from multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer’s disease, to ALS and autism. With the proper application, the potential for stem cell therapy is incredibly promising.