Stem cells and the marvelous hidden potentials

6 min


Stem cells are a term we are all aware of when it comes to various forms of treatment. To begin with, no two individuals are the same. All of us are physically and mentally distinct. What are the odds that two people might have the exact interest in a particular cuisine? In fact, it’s very low. In the same vein, the odds of two people needing a particular form of treatment for a condition is even lower.

Personalized medicine is a broader field by itself. It is a very promising and evolving field. A small step towards personalized medicine is stem cells. Each of us has varied needs for our healthcare. Constant research has been taking place towards moving to personalized medicine. These cells are unique. These cells are undifferentiated that is to say, they are primitive. Further, they do not have any specific job.

MECHANISM OF STEM CELLS:

The stem cells are present within our body. Different types of cells have different types of functions. For example, the cells of the muscle contract, the cardiac cells contract and relax in a cycle. The nerve cells send signals across the body. But, stem cells do not have any particular function.

Meanwhile, these cells replace the damaged cells or tissues in the body. They also replace the worn-out cells regularly. The lining of the intestine is renewed. This is possible due to the presence of stem cells. Therefore, by applying this mechanism and using primitive stem cells we can use this science to replace or re-grow body parts. ‘N’ number of studies are going on regarding their use for replacing organs and tissues.

This field of replacing and re-growing body tissues is termed ‘regenerative medicine’. To clarify, let’s break down the process. Doctors mostly use this therapy for blood and immune-related disorders. Firstly, the healthy and potential cells are removed and stored carefully. Following this, the unhealthy cells are treated through radiation therapy. Now, the healthy cells are replaced into the body. This gives rise to a healthy body and replaces the normal function of the body.

These cells have a great ability in repairing and giving rise to healthy tissues and organs. It is estimated that the liver can regenerate itself within 6 weeks.

Example of use of these cells:

One major example of the use of these cells is in treating leukemia. It is a type of cancer that affects the bone marrow. Multiple unhealthy red blood cells grow out of proportion crowding out the healthy cells and limiting their function. Some patients with leukemia can receive a bone marrow transplant. Healthy stem cells given to the patient might differentiate to normal cells thus treating the disease. This is just one use of these cells.

TYPES OF STEM CELL:

There are 2 main types,

  • Embryonic
  • Adult also known as somatic or bodily stem cells.

THE EMBRYONIC:

These cells are very primitive forms of cells. These cells are derived from the embryos at a developmental stage. In addition, they are taken from the uterus before implantation of the embryo takes place. The main source of these cells is the left-over embryos willingly donated from fertility clinics. These cells have a very important property known as pluripotency. Pluripotent stem cells can develop and differentiate into any form of tissue.

Apart from that the cord blood and the stem cells from the cord during childbirth can be collected. That’s why it’s important to save the umbilical cord.

THE ADULT:

In contrast to embryonic stem cells, the adult ones are tissue-specific ones. Most of the organs contain these cells. These cells play a major role in renewing the inner linings of various organs. They are present in small numbers.

A third type of stem cell is the induced pluripotent stem cell.

THE INDUCED PLURIPOTENT STEM CELL:

These are regular body cells like the cells of the skin, hair, liver, etc. Modification of these cells to act like embryonic cells has been tried upon.

To clarify, these are the three major types of stem cells. A very recent type is direct lineage reprogramming. In this type, one specialized group of cells can be converted into a new type of cell. In addition, this can be done without going through an intermediate pluripotent stage. However, this is very basic and is under the lab phases.

CHARACTERISTICS OF STEM CELLS:

They have 2 defining characters they are,

  • Unlimited self-renewal to produce progeny exactly the same as the originating cell.
  • Ability to differentiate and become a specialized cell that becomes a part of a healthy human.

Talking about the ability to differentiate, cancer cells also have the ability to divide. But, stem cell division takes place in a highly regulated manner.

APPLICATIONS OF STEM CELLS:

The field of stem cell therapy is evolving daily. More than 500 therapies are in the process of being approved. In addition, almost 80 common blood-related conditions have been approved to be treated through cell therapy. These conditions are as common as 1 in every 20 individuals. Although other modalities of treatment are available for these patients about 10% of them might need stem cell therapy. Some of the major researches going on include,

Cerebral palsy autism:

Condition like cerebral palsy autism, treating hearing loss can be treated with stem cell therapy. This condition is more than juvenile AIDS, leukemia, or muscular dystrophy. In cerebral palsy, there is a problem sending signals from the brain to the muscles creating the movement. This is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders.

Recent studies that are being done focus on injecting stem cells into the brain. These stem cells turn into the types of cells that are commonly lost during brain injury. Therefore, they enhance function and restore the brain’s activity. This study particularly in animal trials has shown twice the speed in relation to the brain signals. If they are successful with the clinical trials this would give a normal life to kids with cerebral palsy.

Spinal cord injuries and stroke:

Similarly, studies are focusing on replaced damaged cell populations with stem cells from the patient. These studies are also at a trial level. These if successful could dramatically change the life of the patient and would be a major landmark in medical history.

Combining 3D bio-printing and stem cell regenerative medicine:

This is in a very early stage of research. But, with modern-day improvements in the imaging field obtaining 3-dimensional images of the body is not something difficult. With methods like CAD-CAM and 3D software, we are able to design and print using bioprinters. These printers are very similar to the ones we use, but instead of the inks and the cartridges, we are going to use certain bio-gels and enzymes, chemical modulators that are going to mimic the body’s physiology.

Subsequently, the diseased part of the part can be removed and replaced with these. These are seeded with stem cells to carry on regular growth and function. This technology might be used to replace a part of an organ like the valve of the heart or a whole organ. This might sound like a scene out of a science fiction movie. But these would be a reality in a few years.

  • Stem cells can treat burn and wounds
  • Stem cells could even treat vision burns and corneal flash burns.

CERTAIN THINGS TO CHECK:

Misuse of technology is equally prevalent in any field. This is not an exception for stem cells. Stem cells are very new and are still under research and trial stages. We cannot make complicated structures with multiple cell types. There are also a few challenges with stem cells. In the initial stages, the embryonic stem cells were the only ones used.

But, with the modern-day advent of induced pluripotent cell types and the direct lineage programming which can use the body’s own stem cell for transplant, the talk, and usage of embryonic ones have become less relevant.

Misrepresentation of stem cell strategies is not uncommon with an increase in the number of therapies. There are many reported cases of misuse of stem cells by doctors in many fields. Misuse in the sense, using this technology for personal profit, which might not work or cause harm to the patient. This has been pretty common in cosmetics. Stem cells are injected alongside dermal fillers to rejuvenate and firm the skin as in facelift procedures. These dermal fillers tend to differentiate the fat stem cells into bone. This might result in bony fragments in an otherwise soft tissue area

Hence, it’s very important to check the genuineness of the treatment before you undergo any therapy.

FACTS TO REMEMBER:

Check out these 3 things before you decide to get a stem cell therapy,

  • A cell type should be very specific to replace damaged tissue or organ. Any promise like taking out a particular cell and converting that into 10 other types should be thoroughly looked upon, Because, this is almost impossible as of now.
  • Check the pre-clinical records and trials of the particular center and check for FDA approval.
  • Be knowledgeable and question if any doubts linger in your mind. Spread the word about these and protect people from illegal therapies

A WORD OF CAUTION:

Always keep in mind these pointers about stem cells,

  • Retrieving stem cells once within the body is impossible
  • Never attempt treatments in unregulated centers or clinics

CONCLUSION:

To sum up, stem cells are a great hope for the future. Fund genuine and reputable clinical trials to get the best methods of treatment in the near future for people who need them the most. With the necessary data not only can we move towards specialized medicine but also get to the basics by understanding the body’s physiology paving way for a better future.


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Dr Kavitha M

I am an undergraduate degree holder in dentistry. I have a great interest in music and reading. I am a linguaphile. My areas of interest lie in psychology, medical imaging, diagnostics, and oncology. I am a person who focuses more on the emerging areas of forensics.

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