Stem Cells in STEM
Stem cells, not to be confused with STEM as in science, technology, engineering, and math, are the body's raw building materials from which all specialized cells are made. Stem cells are stored in the body from the time the embryo is developed as a somatic stem cell in a non-specific state (medical news today). They stay in this state until they are needed for a specific reason, whether that be as a skin cell, a muscle cell, or even a brain cell. However, these non-specific stem cells can be hard to find. Even though our body is consistently regenerating its tissue stem cells can stay in this form for years until they are needed. This is because adults stem cells can split and regenerate with no limits. This is how the skin closes wounds or how certain organs can repair themselves after damage.
As medicine has developed so has the use of stem cells. In today's medicine stem cells are used for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases, brain diseases, cell deficiency, and blood diseases. Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death around the globe. As stem cells have the ability to regenerate and self-repair they could help medicine progress rapidly to treat cardiovascular diseases such as acute myocardial infarctions, dilated myopathy, and more. This thesis has been experimented with around the globe but due to the complexity of the human heart, it will still take some time before this treatment becomes open to the public (Nasser et al.). Stem cell transplants, in contrast, have been utilized by medicine in some form for the past sixty years. Stem cell transplants can replace damaged cells, often damaged by chemotherapy or various other diseases. These transplants can also give patients an increased amount of healthy cells to aid in fighting off diseases, such as leukemia, lymphoma, or neuroblastoma (Mayo Clinic).
With more than 50,000 people needing stem cell transplants per year you can save a life by signing up for the registry. Over the past thirty years Be The Match has taken on the task of putting together a registry for bone marrow transplants, along with other needed registries, and is currently the most diverse marrow registry in the world. To learn more about them and their mission visit bethematch.org, and to learn about HOSA’s partnership with Be The Match and how you can get involved visit bethematchhosa.org. Donation of stem cells is more important than ever so find out how you can join the registry.
Another way you can help give back to your community is by signing up to be an organ donor. Currently, with over 106,000 people on the organ transplant list in the United States alone and only an average of 41,000 transplants taking place per year the need for organ donors is ever-growing (SRSA). With such a large gap between demand and supply science has yet again turned to stem cells. One stem cell has the ability to continually split and regenerates into an entirely new organ, if only it were that simple. Experiments have led to techniques to increase the recovery time of damaged organs through the use of stem cells but making one from scratch has yet to be done. Generation of these organs would be done using a process called the blastocyst complementation system. This is a technique practiced on disabled mice where genetically deficient tissues or organs are injected with stem cells and analyzed. Recent experiments have found complete restoration of damaged organs in these mice, however, they have yet to replicate this science outside of a living subject (Hashimoto et al.)
Aside from major organs, scientists have also been working towards creating other parts of the human body, including valves for the heart and growing human ears. A team of researchers from the United States, Switzerland, and Germany successfully grew a replicate of the heart valve and implanted it into a sheep, where it successfully lasted for five months (Borchart). Although more work has yet to be done before humans can see the medical benefit this finding has been a major breakthrough in stem cell research.
It may seem as if using stem cells in certain areas is the science of the future, but stem cells recently granted a previously paralyzed firefighter the ability to walk again. Darek Fidyka, a Polish firefighter has been left paralyzed from the chest down after a knife attack. Two years later, scientists at the University of London offered a possible treatment using olfactory ensheathing cells from his nose, which is what heals damaged nerve endings in the nose. Injecting these cells below and above the gap in Fidykas's spinal cord, the cells were able to construct a bridge between the two. Within three months of the surgery, Fidyka began to develop a sensation in his legs and soon after began walking once again.
Even with this great success, they have had some trouble replicating it, causing it to be withheld from the majority of the public. The fields of STEM have progressed bounds in the field of stem cells but there is yet much work to be done. Especially as some techniques are deemed controversial it will be fascinating to see where the field of science goes in the years to come.