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Continuing importance of stem cell research: Expanding medical knowledge

The Importance of Stem Cell Research

Imagine a world where all forms of dementia, brain disorders and neurological diseases are cured with the patients’ own cells. This could be the same world where the shortage of organ donors has been replaced with the ability of people to grow their own replacement organs free of transplant rejection. This is a world where stem cell research has been allowed to unlock the secrets of cells and move forward the knowledge of medicine in profound ways.

Stem cells are cells with the unique capacity to grow into many different types of cells in the human body — they can even be used to repair and replace old damaged cells, according to the academic paper “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.” Stem cell research primarily focuses on two types of stem cells — adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.”

Adult stem cells are found in many tissues and have the capability to generate new cells repairing damaged tissue. Embryonic stem cells are found in embryos beginning at three to five days old. The unique properties of stem cells are believed to have the ability to replace tissues and organs, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.”

The traditional techniques and animal models currently used will only take medical research and treatments so far. Thus, stem cells should be supplemented to understand and discover the unknown power of cells — the building blocks of all cells and organs.

Stem cell research is essential to the advancement of modern medicine as it has the ability to generate healthy cells to repair tissues and organs, it may open up new treatments for a number of diseases, it can test new drugs for safety and effectiveness and it allows researchers to study the developmental stages of the human embryo, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.”

Organ and Tissue Replacement

Stem cell research could benefit the world by providing breakthroughs in addressing the needs for replacement organs and tissues.

According to the Mayo Clinic, stem cells mature into cells “in bones, heart muscle, nerves and other organs and tissue.” Stem cells are undifferentiated cells — meaning they serve as a generic blueprint for nearly any other cell. They have the unique ability to form into any type of cell the body needs and can be used to replace cells that are damaged and old, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.” This unique ability of stem cells has the potential to reduce the shortage of organ donors. People only have a finite number of organs and very little is donated.

The National Kidney Foundation validates the importance of stem cell research by emphasizing that scientists who are studying stem cells “hold the key for the thousands of people currently on the list for donor organs,” as well as 17 people who die daily waiting “for hearts, lungs, kidneys or livers that never come.”

Stem cell research can save the lives of people waiting for replacement organs. The abundance of stem cells in research can be utilized for organ transplants, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.” The need for donors will be reduced as people grow their own replacement cells and organs free of transplant rejection. Donor organ rejection occurs when the organ recipient’s own body does not recognize the new organ, thereby attacking it as if it was an invading bacteria or virus, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.”

Using people’s stem cells to regenerate their own organs would reduce the risk of transplant rejection and the need for immunosuppression drugs. According to the academic paper “Repairing organs: lessons from intestine and liver,”  iPS and adult stem cell/organoid technologies allow “autologous transplantation of genetically repaired patient tissue.”

This would render allogeneic donors obsolete and abolish the need for lifelong immunosuppression, according to the paper.

Recent advances in stem cell research allow the once fictitious and skeptical concept to be finally realized into real-life medical practice, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.”

In addition to growing entire new organs, research has suggested stem cells positively impact the repair of existing organs and the replacement of vital tissues. Transplantation of specific stem cells into the injured tissue to replace the lost cells is an effective way to repair the tissue, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.” The paper also states that this form of transplantation has been successfully practiced in clinics for liver or kidney failure.

Specifically, clinics that focus on liver and kidney failure use stem cells in their treatments and are showing success. Due to stem cells’ ability to continuously divide and differentiate, stem cells easily replace donor transplants by regenerating organs themselves in a laboratory, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.”

Biological and semi-biological organs produced by stem cells will combat the severe shortage of organ donors, reduce risk of transplant rejection and decrease the need for immunosuppression drugs, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.” The regenerative nature of stem cells also offers treatment for many diseases.

Disease Treatments

Stem cell research benefits medicine by treating many diseases that may be life-threatening. Studies have shown there is therapeutic success using adult stem cells in clinical trials for dozens of conditions, including heart damage and stroke, according to The Charlotte Lozier Institue.

The current state of stem cell research has shown success regarding various diseases studied. Current studies demonstrate the importance of stem cell research, leading to effective treatments for people who have health conditions, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.”

There is no limit to the number of diseases that can be treated with stem cell research. Stem cell research is necessary as researchers will continue to find success in their studies for disease treatments, according to “Generation of functional organs from stem cells.”

One recent success documented in October 2014 found stem cell research helped a nearly blind patient regain sight. CNN Journalist Saundra Young detailed a research trial where transplanted stem cells in 18 patients helped treat vision damage due to macular degeneration.

Young reported that after following up with the patients after three years, they saw no signs of rejection and on average the visions improved about three lines on the standard eye chart.

Researchers of this study say human embryonic stem cells successfully treated the eye disease leading to restored vision for the nearly blind test subjects. Regenerative medicine holds great promise for people suffering from eye disease.

This successful stem cell trial reinforces the importance of stem cell research in all aspects of medicine regarding other diseases. The victory of stem cell research for people with vision loss is only one example of many. As regenerative medicine not only shows promise from disease treatments, stem cell research is useful for testing new drugs for safety and effectiveness, according to CNN.

Drug Discovery and Testing

Stem cell research does not only benefit disease treatments and transplants, but it also benefits tests on drugs for safety and effectiveness, according to Mayo Clinic. Laboratory research has been using animal models from the very beginning. There is evidence animals have been used since ancient times for research and study such as Aristotle in the fourth and fifth century in Ancient Greece, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The use of animals in studies and research continues in contemporary society despite the inaccuracy and cruelty. Animals continued to be used, even with the documented disadvantages or morality issues, due to the mindset to protect the safety of people and not the animals themselves.

Scientists have begun to rely more on stem cells in drug studies by paying attention to how specific drugs can affect stem cells, providing a more accurate prediction of a drug’s toxicity, as opposed to common animal models, according to the MIT Technology Review.

More than ever, researchers are using stem cells rather than conventional testing of animals. It is a safer and non-invasive technique that does not require the harm of humans and animals, according to the MIT Technology Review.

In addition, the use of stem cells in clinical trials for drugs has shown promising results due to higher accuracy. Animal models such as mice and monkeys do not accurately portray the human body as they differ in size. Animal models and humans differentiate in systems and characteristics.

For example, mice and humans do not have the same heart rate, leading to different test results for the tested drug.  The manufacturing company GE Healthcare is one of many using stem cell research to test drugs.

Results from a blind trial against a set of unnamed drug compounds showed cells had been impacted by the known toxic compounds, even though they went through animal testing and were licensed by the FDA, according to Nature, the international journal of science.

The company tested the drug compounds using heart cells from stem cell research, which revealed the toxic compounds. GE Healthcare revealed these same drug compounds were previously approved by the US Food and Drug Administration after three rounds of testing using only animal test trials, according to Nature. This comparison between stem cell research and animal models reinforces the importance of stem cell research in drug testing.

Stem cells have the ability to reveal dangerous drugs that normal animal testing cannot. Cells from adult humans and human embryos provide similar reactions to adult humans allowing more accurate identification of which drugs will harm the human body, according to Nature. The promising statistics and results of stem cell research not only benefit the study of drugs but also allow researchers to study the development of human embryos.

Developmental Stages of the Human Embryo

Stem cell research using human embryonic cells allows scientists to study the developmental stages of the embryo as well as birth defects and other genetic mutations.

“[This is the first] model that allows us to study post gastrulation development of the human embryo,” Jianping Fu, a bioengineer at the University of Michigan says, according to Science Magazine.

More research using stem cells improves society’s knowledge of the growth and development stages of the human embryo. For example, gastrulation is a process where the human embryo alters from one layer of epithelial cells to a multidimensional structure. Stem cell research has enabled researchers to visualize the development after embryonic gastrulation, an unknown stage of the human embryo in the past, according to Nature.

Visualizing the developmental stages of the embryo leads to more discoveries. Human embryonic stem cells are able to summarize embryogenesis through developmentally regulated genes and by activating various molecular pathways according to the academic paper, “Human embryonic stem cells as a powerful tool for studying Human Embryogenesis.”

Stem cell research is noticeably making successful strides in not only the modeling of the embryo but also the potential mutations and genes involved. Analyzing the birth and genetic mutations enable researchers to identify the effects leading to the developing human embryos.

For example, studies using stem cell research are able to understand how the cells in the embryo grow, develop and self-organize, according to Mayo Clinic. In other words, understanding the development connects to critical factors such as genetic mutations and genes affect growth.

The Future of Regenerative Medicine

Stem cell studies are necessary for the continued advancement of medical knowledge. Through this knowledge, stem cell research will allow medicine to grow new cells replacing damaged tissues and organs, provide new and exciting treatments of debilitating diseases, provide more accurate avenues for drug testing and allow researchers to study the developmental stages of the human embryo.

The shortage of organ donors could be replaced with the ability for people to grow their own replacement organs free of transplant rejection with the research of stem cells. Drugs’ safety and effectiveness would be more accurately tested for FDA approval. Stem cell research opens up more understanding of genetic mutations and the developmental stages of the human embryo. A world where all forms of diseases are cured with people’s own body’s cells is only possible with stem cell research.

The continued research of stem cells is vital for the continued advancement of medical research. Understanding the power of people’s cells using stem cell research will advance the field of medicine to improve the quality of life.