Stem cells: Keep the faith
Stem cell research gets a lot of media interest.
There has been much talk about stem cell therapies revolutionising medicine. This is because they have the ability to turn into some, or all, of the 200 or more different cell types in the body.
It would be easy for a casual observer to say this area has been hyped.
The Superman actor Christopher Reeve was among many high-profile supporters of research involving human embryonic stem cells.
Last year I met spinal injury patients in California who were keen to be part of the first trial.
But despite years of planning and tens of millions of dollars of investment by the Californian biotech firm Geron, it has yet to begin. After being approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it was put on indefinite hold last year.
But a broader look at the field of stem cell research shows that it is already delivering much-anticipated breakthroughs. At least that is the view of Professor David Warburton of the Saban Research Institute at Los Angeles Children's Hospital.
He will be a speaker at the UK National Stem Cell Network annual conference, which begins today in Nottingham.
Professor Warburton, who was brought up in London, has been working in the US for 30 years. He is keen not to over-sell stem cells, but nonetheless is confident that they will change the landscape of medicine.
"In 20 years we will have stem cells banks like pharmacies. You will get a specific diagnosis and take a specific type of stem cells."
He said the acceleration in DNA sequencing means that, at some point we will all be able to carry round our genome details on a key fob. Professor Warburton said the decision last year of the Obama administration to overturn many of the Bush restrictions on stem cell funding, had had a "liberalising effect".
Professor Warburton's main area of interest is in the use of stem cells derived from amniotic fluid. These are donated by pregnant women undergoing amniocentesis.
"One of the side-effects of the Bush restrictions was to encourage scientists to look at less controversial sources of stem cells", he said. "There are no ethical objections to using amniotic fluid derived stem cells." He is hoping to begin safety trials in humans targeting kidney disease - specifically the inherited condition Alport syndrome.
Organ regeneration using stem cells has already had some spectacular success, especially with hollow organs like the windpipe and bladder.
In 2008, surgeons in Spain carried out the world's first tissue-engineered whole organ transplant. They stripped the cells from a donor organ and re-populated them with the patient's own stem cells.
Earlier this year, a 10-year-old British boy became the first child to undergo a stem cell organ transplant.
Last month, scientists in the United States said they had grown working liver grafts in the laboratory. Although this was early research involving rats, it was significant because the liver is a much more complex organ than hollow organs like the windpipe.
The potential advantage of growing new organs using a patient's own stem cells is that they may not need to take anti-rejection drugs, which can significantly reduce life expectancy.
There are many other trials - especially in the field of heart damage - which are yielding promising results. Patients are understandably impatient for therapies now, rather than later. But the message to them from the stem cell conference in Nottingham will be - keep the faith.