What's all this about stem cells?
8th February 2009
What is stem cell therapy?
Stem cells can be used to grow tissues for transplantation - for example, heart muscle or brain cells or liver cells. They can also be used as models for disease, which can then be used in research - meaning better knowledge or less reliance on animal experimentation. This has recently been achieved for spinal muscular atrophy.
Who might be helped by these therapies?
A new trial is exploring whether stroke survivors could benefit too, whilst the latest news suggests that stem cells from patients' own bone marrow could help reverse the early signs of MS.
Most of these therapies are only at the stage of initial trials in humans - for example, studies on corneal blindness and spinal cord injury are just starting.
Does it work?
When might therapies be available?
Clinical trials can take up to 10 years, so even if a therapy is shown to be successful, scientists or pharmaceutical companies then have to prove that it is safe. Animal trials have shown that therapies for spinal cord injury, muscular dystrophy and other conditions have great potential, but effective treatments are still a long way off. Therapies may be beneficial in the early days after a spinal cord injury, but not benefit those who have been injured for a long time.
What's the ethical issue here?
Another controversy is over somatic cell nuclear transfer, otherwise known as therapeutic cloning, which would enable stem cell tissues to be matched to the patient, but bring us closer to the possibility of reproductive cloning.
Under President Bush, creation of new embryonic stem cell lines was forbidden in America. President Obama is expected to permit a more liberal approach to research.
What's the political issue?
Moreover, promises of scientific breakthroughs and wonderful medical treatments have been made for over fifty years, and there is scepticism about the current stem cell hyperbole. Superman actor Christopher Reeve was so convinced that stem cell therapy would cure spinal cord injury that he said that barrier removal and disability rights was unnecessary. Most others disagree.
So is it just a load of hype?
In Britain, many parents have been encouraged to pay for their infant's umbilical cord blood to be stored in private stem cell banks, with the hope that this might help with future disease. But scientists are sceptical as to whether the promised benefits will materialise.
But despite these negative stories, overall it is fair to say that leading scientists in the UK and US are responsible and very tightly regulated, and that many believe that ultimately this line of research will transform medicine.
You'll see many more news stories in the months and years ahead, so stay tuned for more updates on 'tailor made tissues'.
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