Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tapping Into the Power of the Stem Cell

Every day, nearly 3,000 people die while waiting for an organ transplant (D’Agnese). Moreover, thousands of people are still on an organ donor list in the United States, few of which will ever see their name come up on that list ("Improving"). Many people believe nothing can be done about this sad fact. However, this is not the case. Studies on stem-cell research are pointing towards solutions to some of the world's most deadly diseases such as Parkinson's and Type 1 Diabetes. With efficient use of stem cells, many diseases and medical problems could potentially be solved. Believe it or not, research with experimental animals such as mice and zebrafish has laid the groundwork for stem cell research in humans. These animal models have been crucial for creating techniques to isolate stem cells in humans and how they grow and differentiate. These animal stem cell experiments hold great promise for human medicine (Chivian and Bernstein 192). 

Stem-cells are very young, specialized cells. Usually coming from a human embryo, they have the ability to develop into more specialized groups of cells or tissues ("Stem Cells: A Primer"). Embryonic stem cells keep reproducing themselves until they are manipulated into specific types of cells. Research is beginning to show stem cells have the ability to treat and possibly cure some of the world's worst diseases. 

Informative video from the Irish Stem Cell Foundation 
outlining what stem cells are

Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease is the most common neurodegenerative movement disorders in the United States. Parkinson's involves the continual loss of dopamine (nerve cell). This led to the creation of levodopa, a medication that regenerates brain dopamine levels and is still the preferred treatment today (Chivian and Bernstein 192).'s.html

Recent studies have shown significant progress in healing brain and spinal cord injuries with transplanted nerve cell tissue. Since the 1980's, many patients have experienced a decrease in the debilitating effects of Parkinson's when treated with human fetal nerve cell transplants. These results generated a considerable amount of interest primarily because the effectiveness of levodopa (preferred treatment) decreases dramatically the longer the patient is on it. They essentially develop a tolerance to the medication. 

Studies in animals over the last twenty years have attempted to better understand the potential of such nerve cell transplants, specifically analyzing embryonic stem cells from mice. Mice with the equivalent of Parkinson's disease received an implantation of their own embryonic stem cells, which proliferated and differentiated into dopamine producing nerve cells. The mice gradually regained sustained motor functions. Though these positive results have been inconsistent, the potential for stem cell transplantation to efficiently treat Parkinson's disease has clearly been demonstrated (Chivian and Bernstein 193).'s.html

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 Diabetes develops from the destruction of the beta cell in the pancreas, which controls the glucose level in blood. The host's own immune system turns on the beta cells that produce the glucose-metabolizing hormone, insulin, and destroys it. Glucose levels in the blood then begin to rise and can currently only be controlled by injecting the patient with insulin, usually multiple times per day. 

It has been necessary to rely on laboratory animals due to the fact that, quite frankly, there aren't many available human pancreases for researchers to study. Organisms like mice, rats and the African Clawed Frog "have revealed the role of the Pdx1 gene, which regulates the expression of multiple genes involved in the production of insulin and in the transport of glucose. Through the introduction of the Pdx1 gene, fetal liver cells from both mice and humanshave been transformed into insulin-secreting cells. And when transplanted into mice having the equivalent of type 1 diabetes, these cells restored normal function for prolonged periods" (Chivian and Bernstein 193). 

In 2009, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed reversal of the Type 1 Diabetes symptoms by transplanting the patients with their own stem cells. Over the five year time span of the study, patients, on average, remained insulin-free for nearly three years (Park). 

Here is the complete study if you want to read more:

Researchers believe that the reason the immune system turns on the pancreatic beta cells lies in the immune cells. So, why not just wipe out the entire immune system and make a new one? Well, that's what they did; created from stem cells without the Type 1 Diabetes trait. Patients were treated with a similar dosing regimen of radiation as cancer patients and then were injected with their own immune stem cells, which had been previously extracted. Sure enough the stem cells blossomed into a completely new immune system that produced insulin to regulate blood-sugar levels. While the results were not permanent, the results of the study show that stem cells can produce long-lasting beta cells and take the "burden off the patient and put it back where it belongs, on the beta cells" (Park). 

Video of stem cell research in Type 1 Diabetes 
being conducted at the University of Texas

There is no doubt that science is on the verge of a major breakthrough in stem cell research. Stem cells will one day provide effective and efficient low-cost treatments for patients with diseases such as Parkinson's and Type 1 Diabetes. Hopefully, in time, the amount of people dying from waiting on organ transplant lists will become a thing of the past because of stem cells.

Works Cited

Chivian, Eric, and Aaron Bernstein. Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

D'Agnese, Joseph. "The Debate Over Stem Cells Gets Hot". Discover 23 (Jan.2002):1.

"Impoving the Nation's Organ Transplantation System". US Department of Health and Human Services. 18 Oct. 1999. 4 May 2012

Park, Alice. "Study: Stem Cells May Reverse Type 1 Diabetes." TIME 14 Apr. 2009. Web.

"Stem Cells: A Primer". National Institute of Health. May 2000. 4 May 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative and I'm looking forward to learning more about this in the future. I though the information about transplanting nerve cell tissues is just amazing. I recently read a paper about heart regeneration in zebrafish which did not take into account stem cells, it seems like with both processes working together "miracles" could happen.