“earproject – 2×3” flickr photo by Army Medicine  shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

     If you follow the news these days you can’t fail to have come across a new “revolutionary” branch of medicine called stem cell research. Stem cell research belongs to a branch of science called regenerative medicine, which seeks to repair or replace damaged and diseased human cells and tissues. 

     These treatments may involve transplanting stem cells or tissues that have been grown in the lab, or using various techniques to stimulate the body to repair itself. Experts believe that regenerative medicine has the potential to completely change the way that patients are cared for and is responsible for introducing new and revolutionary treatments for a wide range of debilitating conditions.

     At the heart of regenerative medicine is research using stem cells. These are cells that can regenerate almost indefinitely with some being able to develop into any other cell types in the body.
         This extraordinary flexibility means they have the potential to treat many different diseases and conditions that currently have no cure, like type 1 diabetes, blindness, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and arthritis. This form of creating new cells to replace dead or damaged tissue is known as stem cell therapy and is the corner stone of regenerative medicine applications.

Types of regenerative medicine

There are two main branches of regenerative medicine:

Artificial Organs

     Scientists and doctors around the world have been developing devices to replace the function of many organs including the heart, lung, liver and kidney. In cases where an organ fails, the current medical strategy is to transplant a donor organ into the patient. This type of technique raises many challenges, such as: the availability of donor organs, and the requirement that the donor take a smorgasbord of drugs that can have nasty side effects.

     With regenerative medicine, scientists can create new body parts for patients from their own cells and tissues, this way the organ can be strengthened, have parts replaced, and be maintained in such a way that there will be no need to replace the whole organ. For instance, the only current solution for severe cases of heart disease is a heart transplant.

     Even if a patient is able to survive long enough to receive a new heart, there is no promise that the body will accept the new organ. Scientists have already used regenerative medicine to successfully grow heart valves from human cells in a lab. These can then be transplanted into a patient and with a little work and medical trickery effectively treat problems caused by heart disease and reduce the need to replace the entire heart.

Cellular Therapies

     Millions of adult stem cells are found in everyone and our body use them as a way of repairing itself. Studies have shown that if adult stem cells are harvested and then injected at the site of diseased or damaged tissue, reconstruction of the tissue is possible under the right circumstances. As stem cells are capable of changing into any type of cell type or chemical in your body they have the potential to repair any and all diseased tissue.

     Imagine someone suffering from leukemia. Even though they can receive effective treatment to eliminate the cancer cells, healthy cells will also be destroyed in the process. The patient’s body, by the end of treatment will be in dire need of new cells. These cells then have to be harvested from another source, like bone marrow from a compatible donor and most often, finding a compatible donor is far from easy. 

     What if you had a cache of your own cells stored already and whenever you needed? They could be replanted back inside your body to help you heal. For instance, the umbilical cord, usually discarded at birth, holds blood vessels that contain a vast amount of blood filled with stem cells. What if this blood was stored at birth for future use? This way everyone would have their own ready-made supply of disease fighting cells to heal any future disease they may encounter.

Advantages of Regenerative Medicine

     Regenerative medicine could make the ability to regenerate tissue and restore the function and structure of damaged cells in a patient possible. It has shown great potential in the treatment of a number of conditions like Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, cancer, diabetes and many others. It could also improve, eliminate or decrease negative effects of existing procedures, shorten recovery time, and improve the life of patients and their families. 

     The flexibility of stem cells to repair diseased cells cannot be ignored and its implications are far and wide. Many diseases currently deemed incurable could soon be treated successfully with stem cell therapy and, as a result, many lives could be saved. 

Disadvantages of Regenerative Medicine

     This is a new field of study and there aren’t currently many areas of medicine that have been successfully or thoroughly tested. Because it is new, the long-term side effects of the therapy are also unknown. Until thorough tests can be completed it is not known if future side effects could cause more severe problems than the initial problem that was being treated. 

     Treatments can also be very costly. Most therapies are only in the experimental stage and access to them is limited. The high cost is, in most cases, not covered by medical insurance and prices can vary considerably depending on the treatment, region, and doctor/hospital. For example, the cost of a single treatment can range from $500 to $5,000, with most illnesses requiring multiple treatments, raising the overall cost considerably.

we still have a ways to go

     As you can see, regenerative medicine shows a lot of promise. Stem cell research is already effectively treating many illnesses that just a few years ago were considered untreatable. With the speed of development in the field only set to increase and only if funding improves. It won’t be long before regenerative medicine is commonly used to treat many diseases and more patients see their chances of a good quality of life to be improved.

     How do you feel about regenerative medicine? Does this excite you, or anger you? I know that some people are for while others are against this type of science. Either way, please comment below and let me know your thoughts. I’m very curious to hear both sides. 

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