The coming of regenerative medicine: Stem cell therapy is on its way quicker than expected
Two ground breaking researches that were published by Haruko Obokata at the RIKEN Center for Development Biology will add another notch of controversial past for the Stem Cell research. The study demonstrated the transformation of adult mouse somatic cells into embryonic like stem cells with short dip in acid. The paper was put under investigation by both Japanese research institute and nature for potential credibility issues. The astonishing findings impressed the medical communities worldwide due to the resounding therapeutic implications.
Stem cells have the ability to differentiate into many different cell types also known as pluripotency, which represents a theoretically life-saving therapy for tissue replacement after disease or injury. Since most adult stem cells are lineage-restricted and able to differentiate into only a limited number of specialized cell types, the embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are completely pluripotent and studies show that this is a potential therapy in the field of regenerative medicine.
Challenges of embryonic stem cell research
Despite the therapeutic potential of the ESCs, a major ethical concern is preventing it from advancing beyond the petri dish and animal models. In order to derive ESCs, it will require the destruction of blastocyst- an early-stage embryo that is considered to be a veritable form of life.
In Canada, the regulations surrounding the stem cell research are plentiful that aside from three governing agencies it also includes Stem Cell Oversight Committee (SCOC) that is responsible in reviewing all relevant research before it allows funding. In addition to the mandatory enlistment in a national registry of human ESC lines. The embryos from which these cells are derived must not be created for the sole purpose of research which includes using leftover in vitro fertilization embryos the main source of ESCs (if free and informed consent is given by the donors).
Due to the very strict regulations surrounding the basic stem cell research, it becomes a substantial roadblock in succeeding the therapeutic developments.
Discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells
Shinya Yamanaka made a very important discovery in 2006 which led us one step closer to harnessing the true therapeutic power of stem cell technology. Yamanaka showed that the forced expression of select pluripotent genes could reprogram fully differentiated adult cells back into pluripotent stem cells. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012. With the latest advancement, it brought to the improvement of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) process which includes the discovery of non-genetic techniques that are safer and less mutagenic. These approaches are generally less efficient and limit the clinical use of iPSCs as disease therapies.
Recent Stem Cell breakthrough leads to questions about regulations
Proving the legitimacy of Obokata’s pH-induced stemness is still in question but there is no doubt that stem cell research is progressing at a swift pace. In the near future, stem cell therapy could completely eliminate the need for drugs as damaged or faulty tissues and organs can be easily regenerated and replaced with stem cell-derived counterparts. In fact, functional organ structures from human stem cells already exist. Transplantable “liver buds” made of human iPSCs can grow and perform liver functions when grafted to mice. Scientists have also created a mini brain “organoids” from human ESCs and iPSCs as models in the study of neurodevelopmental diseases.
With all the success and advancement in stem cell research, it becomes clearer that the policy surrounding the use of this technology seriously needs an update and a much needed reform like for example, the FDA. The FDA is unsure on how to categorize a patient’s own stem cells if it can be labeled as “drug”.
But the most alarming issue is the overwhelming appearance of stem cell clinics which falsely claims to offer safe and effective therapies for ailments like cardiovascular diseases to Alzheimer’s and even Parkinson’s.
Clearly, there is a disagreement between the scientists who propel the stem cell therapy technology forward and the policy makers who regulate and verify safety and validity of use in the market. It is time to realize that both are working towards a very important goal and that is to ensure that the public has access to quality, universally-available and accountable healthcare services. Both policy makers and researchers need to work together in order to keep up with the ever increasing demand for innovation and effective therapies.
1. The future of regenerative medicine: Stem cell therapy may be approaching faster than you think by Christine Tam, http://www.sp-exchange.ca