Stem Cells Today
Acting as a repair system for the body, stem cells have the ability to develop into many different types of cells in the body. As many of you know, stem cells have been used in the treatment of various types of cancer: brain cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and many more. They have also been helpful for patients with autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, lupus, and Crohn’s disease – just to name a few.
The list is a long one for what stem cells have the potential to do. Its discovery has changed healthcare and medicine in a dramatic way. This article will walk you through the interesting discovery of stem cells and provide insight into what we can expect in the future.
The Discovery of Stem Cell Treatment
For many, stem cells may seem like a fairly new phenomena, but they’re not. While key events in stem cell research and treatment did not occur until the late 1900s, its concept was birthed in the 19th century.
In the year 1868, Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist, used the term “stem cell” for the first time in scientific literature. He used the term to describe the fertilized egg that becomes an organism. Haeckel also illustrated stem cells as ‘the single-celled organism that acted as the ancestor cell to all living things‘.
In 1886, William Sedgwick used the term to describe the parts of a plant that grow and regenerate.
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1900 – 1959
Alexander Maximow lectured at the Berlin Hematological Society in 1909. He suggested that all blood cells come from the same ancestor cell. This created the theory of blood stem cells being multi-potent, or having the capability to differentiate into several types of cells.
By 1953, a Maine scientist known as Leroy Stevens, performed cancer research on mice. He found that the tumors in mice contained mixtures of differentiated and undifferentiated cells, including hair, bone, intestinal and blood tissue. At this time, researchers concluded the cells were pluripotent, meaning they can differentiate into any cell found in a fully grown animal.
In his study, six patients were treated with radiation and chemotherapy. Afterwards, they all received an intravenous infusion of marrow from a normal donor. Two of the patients were engrafted, but all six patients died approximately 100 days following the transplantation.
During this time, there was no research regarding the importance of appropriately matching donors and recipients.
On February 2, 1963, Canadian scientists, Ernest McCulloch and James Till, accidentally confirmed the existence of stem cells. The researchers irradiated mice with enough X-rays to kill them within 30 days. In order to save them, the mice would need to receive a transplant of fresh, unimpaired bone marrow cells. Mcculloch and Till injected different amounts of cells into the mice to get an idea of the number of cells necessary to keep the animals alive.
Ten days after injecting the cells into the mice, Dr. Mcculloch studied the nodules in the spleens of the mice that were still alive. Based on this study, they determined that the injected blood cells were forming the equivalent of a bacterial colony. Essentially, they discovered that the new blood cells were keeping the animals alive.
By 1968, American physician, Robert A. Good, had performed the first successful bone marrow transplant on a child. This five month old child suffered from severe combined immunodeficiency, which had unfortunately killed others in his family. He received bone marrow from his eight year old sister. This bone marrow transplant cured the child of his disorder and restructured his lymphoid and hematopoietic function. Due to the success of this transplant, compatibility became a standard for conducting a successful bone marrow transplant.
In 1981, Martin Evans and Gail Martin, were the first to extract embryonic stem cells from mouse embryos.
Andrew Lassar and Harold Weintraub converted rodent fibroblasts into myoblasts by using a single gene in 1986. This proved that one type of adult cell could be converted into another.
By 1989, Martin Evans, Oliver Smithies, and Mario Capecchi worked together to create “knockout mice”. A Knockout mouse is a mouse whose DNA has been genetically engineered. They created the mice from embryonic stem cells and homologous recombination. Since this development, there have been over 500 different mouse models of human disease.
Dominique Bonnet and John Dick found that leukemia comes from the same cells that make our blood cells. This discovery in 1997 is one of the first that proves that cancer grows out of stem cells gone off course.
The very next year, James Thomson and Jeffrey Jones created the first batch of human embryonic stem cells. They also realized that the cells have the ability to create several different cell types.
2000 – 2010
By 2001, President George W. Bush authorized the use of federal funds for research on a finite number of existing human embryonic stem cell lines. This was a result of the discovery made by Thomson and Jones in 1998.
In 2005, South Korean scientists developed 11 stem cell lines that matched their donors. This discovery showed that the immune systems of patients getting their own stem cells are unlikely to reject the transplants. However, this claim was retracted after it was found to be falsified information. That same year, researchers at Children’s Hospital improved the process of converting embryonic stem cells from mice into blood stem cells for transplantation.
Human Induced Pluripotent Stem (iPS) cells were developed in 2007 by Shinya Yamanaka, James Thomson, and George Q. Daley. iPS cells are essentially cells that have been changed back into an embryonic-like pluripotent state that permits the creation of an infinite source of any type of human cell.
In 2008, scientists turned a rodent pancreatic exocrine cell into an insulin-producing cell. This development further proved that it’s possible to turn one adult cell into another.
2009 Marked Significant Changes in Stem Cell Research
In 2009, President Barack Obama reversed some of the limitations placed on stem cell research under the Bush Administration. As a result, the National Institute of Health revised the guidelines on federal funding for stem cell research. The updated guidelines have stricter provisions for informed donor consent and the ethical procurement of remaining embryos from in-vitro fertilization.
During the same year, a clinical trial began for PGE2; this is a drug known to increase the production of blood stem cells. The clinical trial was being tested on patients with leukemia and lymphoma that had been implanted with blood stem cells from donated umbilical cords.
At the end of 2009, the National Institute of Health confirmed 13 lines of human embryonic stem cells as eligible for stem cell funding. This gave any scientist interested in conducting research the ability to apply for federal funding.
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2010 and Beyond
In February 2012, research from a clinical trial was published to highlight the transplantation of adult stem cells into heart attack patients. Researchers extracted adult stem cells, grew them in a petri dish, and returned it to the patients heart. They found that the treatment minimized scarring and led to the regrowth of heart tissue.
In 2014, an FDA-approved clinical trial showed that vision had improved in more than half of the 18 patients studied with macular degeneration. Those patients were treated with embryonic stem cells.
The Future of Stem Cells
Stem cell research has progressed exponentially since the 19th century. Today, the findings of the past are being used to treat conditions like heart disease and leukemia. With new research being published in scientific journals regularly, the potential of continued support and development is strong. Although there are varying ethical and legal concerns, the medical community believes that stem cells have the power to treat even more diseases in the future.
While we still have a long way to go, some studies have allowed us to imagine the unique possibilities of the future for stem cell treatment. Imagine the repairing of cells and curing of illnesses that have troubled many people for so long.