Stem cell treatment has often been touted as the new medical frontier and there is increasing evidence that it works in different ways and is more successful as well. Stem cells are being used for leukemia, lymphoma, other blood disorders, and some solid tumors. There is research that is ongoing for stem cells usage to treat various ailments ranging from arthritis to diabetes to heart disease.
What is the source of stem cells?
Unfortunately, stem cells come from adult tissues, from embryos, germ cells of aborted fetuses, umbilical cord blood and other such sources, leading to a debate on the ethics of stem cell treatment. While stem cells can be harvested either from the bone marrow (which is difficult to reach and a painful process) or from the blood (where they are too few) for many purposes like transplants, they are usually not available in a sufficient quantity and then have to be ‘grown’. Where donor cells are used, the donor has to undergo the complete matching process.
However, it is very difficult to culture and grow adult stem cells in a laboratory. Then again, cells cannot be differentiated and only certain cells can be used for specific purposes. It is only embryonic stem cells that are very versatile as they can grow into any kind of cell; these are called pluripotent cells but it is difficult to harvest stem cells from embryos, as they are not easily available. Another way of getting pluripotent cells is by introducing new genes into cells, which is also quite complicated. Pluripotent cells are like embryonic cells and can be used for many purposes but they are difficult to get. Thanks to an exciting new discovery, this major obstacle may soon be overcome, making pluripotent cells easy to generate.
What new research has found
Japanese researchers from the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology led by Dr. Haruko Obokata were able to make stem cells pluripotent by exposing various cells to different stresses and changing them into pluripotent stem cells. Thanks to this research, it appears that ordinary skin or blood cells, when exposed to a weak acid bath for as little as half an hour, change into pluripotent stem cells.
Dr. Obokata was able to successfully reprogram different cell types. Of the cells exposed to stress, 25 percent of the cells survived the stress they were exposed to and of them 30 percent become pluripotent cells, a much larger number than by using earlier methods of producing cells. The research was published on January 28, 2014 in the journal Nature and has been hailed by the medical and scientific fraternity.
Dr. Obokata spent over six years on this research, initially starting work with Dr. Charles Vacanti of Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston and best known for his work in 1995 of growing a human ear on a mouse and working in the field of stem cell science. In 2001, too, he was able to discover a new stem cell called a spore like cell and this research was published at that time. When Dr. Obakata started working with him, he directed the path the research and experimentation should take. Later she joined the Riken Centre of Developmental Biology and continued her research on the same guidelines.
Why is this considered a breakthrough?
This discovery and research can be a game changer as stem cell treatment has numerous potential applications. They can be used to cure many diseases, for transplants, to replace or repair tissue that is damaged by disease or injury and treat and cure various ailments. Cells from the person’s own body, when changed into pluripotent cells, can obviate the possibility of rejection. In future, this discovery may be used to regenerate parts or organs of the body, something that seems to be in the realm of science fiction.
These cells can form placental tissue – something other cells cannot do – an potentially make cloning easier. If stem cells can be shocked into pluripotent cells and become easier to grow, they can reduce the time and cost factors for stem cell treatment, as also herald a new line of personalized treatment.
On an aesthetic level, other research has shown that stem cells can be used to regroup hair follicles that may be missing or dying and provide a treatment for baldness. Current research used cells from both skin and hair follicles and has been successful in growing both skin and hair follicles in mice.
However, all current research has been done using cells from mice and in laboratory conditions. It is going to require a lot more time and research and human trials before such treatment is actually available.