You have probably heard the terms stem cell, and stem cell treatments and transplants. There is also plenty of high-profile discussion about the use of stem cells in the treatment of some diseases. Michael J. Fox, for example, has been vociferous in his support for stem cell research and the potential for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Stem cells have two amazing properties, one is they have the ability to divide indefinitely and the second is they can develop into many different types of cell. Think of them this way, they are a sort of repair system. Each stem cell has this potential to become whatever sort of cell needed, they could become a blood cell or a brain cell or they have the potential to remain as a stem cell. What makes them so special is their ability to divide for as long as the person remains alive.
Why do researchers find stem cells so important?
It is what stem cells can do which makes them so interesting. Besides the idea outlined above of being able to generate healthy cells to replace diseased ones, there two other lines of research which theoretically could help us in understanding and treating disease.
Helping us find out how diseases occur
This concept is easy to follow. By watching how cells mature into their ultimate form researchers can better understand how diseases develop in the first place. What happens for a cell to become a cancer cell for example. Watching the development of the cell will help us understand the conditions under which development goes correctly and then when it goes awry.
New Drug Testing
Before a drug is released onto the market it has to go through extensive testing. It takes a long time before it can be tested on humans and before then, there will have been animal testing regardless of what the anti-vivisectionists think.
Using stem cells might make testing considerably more effective. Imagine creating a drug to deal with cancer cells. The Holy Grail is to hit the cancer cells hard but to leave the tissue surrounding it intact. By using stem cells drug researches can watch the effects of the drug on cancer cells and on cells which are healthy and then a combination of the two
The potential of this type of testing is that researchers would go into the phases where humans are trialing a drug with a better concept of what will happen than they would today. They will already know what to expect and what to look for. Potentially this could safely reduce the amount of time it takes a new drug through testing, without compromising health or safety.
Why are we not further along?
Stem cells are the most basic of basic building blocks and there are plenty medical and ethical concerns. While more research is occurring on a yearly basis, we are still in the early days. There is more work to do. It seems to me that we need to understand more.