Perennial seekers of the elixir of youth easily lap up any news on new stem cell therapies. And why not? Medical research has been on a roll lately.
Anything to preserve our youth, right?
Stem cell therapy, in general, is popular because it has been proven to treat a range of conditions on the blood and immune system, skin and eyes.
But let’s be real. The all-in-one solution for ageing is not within arm’s reach yet. This has, however, not deterred entrepreneurial folks from jumping into the bandwagon and loosely using the term “stem cell treatment” for their services that have not undergone enough clinical trials. What some bank on, though, are anecdotal evidences or testimonials.
What is Stem Cell Therapy?
Stem cell therapy is an emerging treatment that uses stem cells to help restore damaged tissues. It is also known as regenerative medicine. Stem cells are cultured in labs to specialize into specific adult cells types, depending on the organ it is trying to treat.
Such treatment is considered as the next big thing after organ transplant as it uses cells instead of entire donor organs to replace damaged tissues. In fact, it is a viable alternative to organ transplant in some cases as it does not require any search for a donor with a perfect match.
Currently, stem cell therapy can benefit patients suffering from bone marrow diseases, leukemia and lymphomas, severe burns, and cornea damage. A host of other applications are also under clinical trials.
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Sources of Stem Cells
About half a century ago—years after the second world war—scientists learned that spleen or bone marrow transplants can actually help heal human cells that had been exposed to lethal radiation.
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Today, we know this much: There are stem cells in one’s bone marrow. Transplants make it possible for these stem cells introduced into a patient’s body to grow and multiply, allowing his bone marrow to produce healthy cells again.
Patients with leukemia or lymphoma, for instance, can now opt for bone marrow transplants as part of their treatment.
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The options in stem cell biology, though, have expanded, but not without their accompanying controversies. For one, science is now looking at embryonic and fetal sources of human stem cells as well.
Stem Cell Therapy and Anti-aging
One type of stem cell therapy is gaining popularity not because of its ability to treat a disease, but because of its alleged potential to slow down the ageing process.
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Several clinics worldwide offer regenerative medicine intended to slow down the ageing process by infusing adult stem cells into the body to repair and rejuvenate organs, including our biggest organ—the skin. Reported results include visibly younger appearance, increased energy, fewer wrinkles and age spots, and reduced effects of degenerative diseases.
Personalities such as Finnish-Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard even claim that stem cell therapy has effectively reversed their ageing process.
Nygard started his experimental treatment in 2010 and had presented markers in a bid to prove the treatment’s success. He actively supports further stem cell research and even announced in 2014 that he would finance a stem cell facility in the Bahamas.
Stem Cell Research: Pros and Cons
The excitement surrounding stem cell research does not come as a surprise. After all, much as been written about its huge potential to cure many diseases.
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It has, however, also been making the news because of its ethical and moral ramifications.
- Aside from the huge life-saving potential, stem cell research allows scientists to learn more about human cell development by studying stem cells.
- On the part of patients, stem cell therapy reduces the risk of rejection as the cells being implanted are autologous—meaning, they came from a patient’s own body.
- In the future, regenerative medicine may lead to less animal and human testing, as medicines and drugs can be directly tested on a group of cells.
- Controversies hound embryonic stem cell research mainly because this involves the extraction of stem cells from human embryos roughly 3-5 days after the latter’s fertilization. For some pro-life advocates, the process prevents the growth of an embryo, and therefore is an act of murder and anti-life.
- The treatment itself treads precariously on religious beliefs— i.e., about how scientists play God and mess with human lives. The potential of stem cell research evolving into human cloning research again raises many ethical concerns.
- As a relatively new and growing technology, the long-term side effects of stem cell therapy is not yet well established.
There is still much to learn about stem cell biology, and it may take some time before some of the new treatments can be proven effective and safe.
Just know that treatments that are backed by patient testimonials and experimental, are not in the same league as those that had passed rigorous clinical trials. “Stem cell therapy” is not a magic-bullet treatment for all diseases yet.
-Yan Birog for Grateful and Spry