Express Healthcare

Importance of stem cells-Past, present and future

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Dr Pradeep Mahajan, Regenerative Medicine Researcher, StemRx Bioscience Solutions highlights the importance and other aspects of stem cell technology

Globally, we are seeing a change in the type of age-specific, chronic, debilitating diseases. Thus, the manner in which we diagnose and treat such diseases is also seeing a paradigm shift. From empirical use of drugs to target-specific treatments, we are now advancing towards molecular dysfunction-based therapies.

I have been in the field of clinical medicine and surgery for over 3 decades now and I have always been fascinated by new research. Among the substantial advances in the healthcare field, I believe regenerative medicine and cell-based therapy have been game changers. We saw hematopoietic stem cells being used to treat blood cancers and related diseases for over 3-4 decades. Now we are seeing an expansion in the applications of stem cells in treating various acute, chronic, lifestyle, and even genetic and congenital diseases. The need arose because conventional medicine is gradually losing potency in treating diseases and patients are often left at the mercy of nature to take its course.

With increasing knowledge of stem cells, the trend to utilise the endogenous repair mechanisms of the human body gained popularity. Cells, growth factors and other biological products, when present at the right site; at the right moment, stimulate the natural healing mechanisms of the body and aid in management of health conditions. Cell-based therapy thus marked the beginning of a new era in regenerative medicine.

Stem cells are present in several tissues, namely, embryo, umbilical cord, placenta, as well as adult body tissues. These are the master cells of the body that have roles in development of the body, repairing and regenerating injured tissues (at a cellular level), and maintaining homeostasis even in an healthy individual. Of course, we have all heard of ethical issues regarding the use of embryonic stem cells as well as their tumor-forming issue. Regarding umbilical cord stem cells, the trend of banking this tissue has just begun; therefore, the majority of us would not have the umbilical cord as a source of stem cells. Keeping in mind these aspects, researchers started focusing on adult stem cells that can be derived from different tissues of the human body. The common sources are bone marrow, fat tissue, peripheral blood, and teeth, among others. The chief advantage is that, the source being autologous, the therapy is safe and is not associated with side effects.

Coming to the diseases that can be treated using stem cells—we have just scratched the tip of the iceberg. There are several health conditions that plague mankind—arthritis, diabetes, nerve-related conditions, traumatic injuries, etc. Conventionally, one would be prescribed medications (often for prolong periods or even for their lifetime) or be advised surgery. Nonetheless, in several cases, the quality of life of a patient is compromised. The various properties of stem cells help reduce swelling in the body, regulate the immune system, enhance the functioning of other cells, and create a healthy environment for health cells to thrive. Through this, one can target a myriad of pathologies at the molecular level, in a minimally/non-invasive manner.

Patients today are quite aware of the benefits of regenerative medicine and cell based therapy, but there is still a long distance to cover. Countries are promoting research and development in the field of regenerative medicine and cell-based therapy. Research advances pertaining to introducing products with cell and scaffold based technology through tissue engineering are underway. Bioactive scaffolds that are capable of supporting activation and differentiation of host stem cells at the required site are being developed. In the future, it will be possible to use human native sites as micro-niche/micro-environment for potentiation of the human body’s site-specific response. Another breakthrough in the field of cell-based therapy is immunotherapy that aims to utilise certain parts of a person’s immune system and stimulate them to fight diseases such as cancer.

The scope of cell-based therapy is endless. All we need is more research, awareness, and implementation to permit reach of the treatment to every stratum of the society. Soon, we will talk about treating diseases with cells and not pills and knives!

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