Stem cells are lauded for their enormous regenerative potential. Some researchers believe that stem cells could be used to treat ailments ranging from autoimmune disorders to severe muscle damage. The technology is still in its infancy. Yet it’s already being married to nanotechnology, another burgeoning medical industry.
Researchers have been using nanotechnology to support stem cell treatments since around 2003. Early stem cell researchers struggled with getting the cells to morph into the right shape. The process is guided naturally by your body but it’s very hard to replicate that process in a laboratory. Isolating the chemicals responsible for the process and using them to prod the stem cells in a sterile environment was not very successful.
That’s why scientists needed to find an environment that could mimic the body’s cells.
What is Regenerative Medicine?
Regenerative medicine is a branch of medicine that seeks to repair damaged tissues. It’s a new field that’s exciting a lot of interest. The body has a natural response to being injured or damaged. Regenerative medicine is used to help amplify the body’s response.
If the therapies prove to be successful, the entire field of medicine will be completely transformed. Regenerative practices hope to heal the root of various ailments rather than just treating the symptoms. However, because the research is so new, most treatments are still classified as experimental.
That doesn’t mean that they’re not effective. It just means that more research needs to be done before science can conclusively attest to its benefits.
Regenerative medicine represents a shift in medical thought. Physicians are delving deeper into the root cause of disease.
Stem Cells and Nanotechnology
In 2012, a group from Northwestern University used a process called scanning probe lithography. The technique traces 3-D shapes on a nanopatterned flat surface.
“The three-dimensional aspect is very interesting, and mimics aspects of the environment in a highly stylized way,” Fiona Watt, director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King’s College London, told the Guardian.
“Several reports argue that the topology imposed on a stem cell – how a stem cell is contained in 3D – affects its behavior. When you consider your bones and cartilage, this makes perfect sense.”
The Northwestern researchers determined that they could coax stem cells into becoming bone cells. The same methods could eventually be used to turn stem cells into any type of predetermined type of cell.
“With further development, researchers might be able to use this approach to prepare cells of any lineage on command,” the study’s authors explained.
Pluripotent adult stem cells can be extracted from the patient and quickly transformed into the necessary cell type. The treatment is often used to stimulate healing.
Mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) flow through the bloodstream when the body needs a repair. The Northwestern team were able to successfully grow MSCs. Stem cells respond to the shape of their environment.
“But that’s not to say that this is the only way to direct stem-cell fate,” Marilyn Monk, emeritus professor of molecular embryology at University College London’s Institute of Child Health, said. “We know that regulation of development involves multiple mechanisms that operate independently and interdependently to bring about a final specific cell function.”
Nanotechnology is allowing stem cell research to go further than before.
Peter Thorpe of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, London, said: “It would be neat to see if they can take a stem cell, already committed in one developmental direction, and back it up so that it might become another type of cell again, using only their patterning technique… That would be the Nobel prize.”
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Stem Cell Environment
Regenerative Medicine Research
People are probing the ways that stem cells can be used to treat various conditions. A significant amount of research has looked at patients with blood cancer. Researchers tried to prompt their bodies into making new, functioning cells by injecting adult stem cells into their bodies.
The treatment has also shown promise with burn victims. Patients need healthy skin for skin grafts.
However, the experimental nature of these treatments is keeping them out of the mainstream. A thriving stem cell industry exists, but patients generally need to seek treatment on their own and pay for it out of pocket. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has very strict requirements for the medications and treatments that it endorses.
Another roadblock to nanotechnology and regenerative medicine research is how expensive the studies they are. One study noted that while “huge benefits” might be expected from the research, it would be extremely expensive and “affordability might limit implementation, even if there is a good chance of cost savings down the line.”
There’s hope that the technology will become more affordable as it becomes more advanced.
What’s in the Future?
It’s not clear what the future of regenerative medicine and nanotechnology will be. The next major breakthrough could be discovered any day. However, it will still be some time before the new idea can be used in a treatment approved for the public.
Stem cell therapy is still an unusual option for the average patient. This may change as more research is released. Patients are currently locked out of regenerative medicine because most doctors won’t recommend it and even if they did, patients can’t afford it. Insurance companies rarely cover experimental treatments.
If stem cell therapy becomes cheaper and more effective through nanotechnology, it might be a huge boom for society.
However, there’s no guarantee that will happen. It’s possible that scientists will continue to struggle to create stem cell treatments that actually work in human patients.
If you’re interested in regenerative medicine, do your research. Find a physician that can talk to you about your concerns. You have to be your own advocate.
And remember, if you agree to try an experimental treatment, that means you’re agreeing to the possibility that it won’t work or might even have a negative effect. Those risks will be clearly explained before you begin. Make sure that you only work with legitimate researchers. If they’re being funded by the government, you should be able to verify their story.
Regenerative medicine is an exciting but unstable field. It could potentially alter the quality of human life as it could free us from many diseases. However, most of the claims are still being proven.
Regenerative medicine might be able to help you.