Stem cell research continues to develop at an incredibly rapid rate. New innovations in this sphere have made it possible to successfully treat a wide range of problems that were either previously impossible to treat or extremely costly. These new treatments have offered hope to millions of people around the world. And, hope is definitely a good thing!
The remainder of this article will explore that stem cell research breakthroughs that were announced during November 2018.
Platelets: A Breakthrough
Platelets are an important part of the body’s blood. These platelets help the body to clot and stop bleeding, which may be essential in any injury or illness situation. Traditionally when platelet levels have dropped, patients have received blood transfusions. However, blood transfusions have potential consequences. For example, a person may develop an allergic reaction to what the body perceives to be a foreign body. And, for some people, these allergic reactions can even have deadly consequences. Another downside of blood transfusions is that blood may be in limited supply (particularly after natural disasters or mass casualty events).
A new innovation that was recently announced shows that platelets can be grown from stem cells harvested from human fat tissue. This would potentially dramatically mitigate the problem of blood shortages. It is important to note that platelet shortages may be even more dramatic than for blood as a whole. This is driven by the fact that platelets have a short lifespan. They cannot be stored for long periods of time. These derived platelets may have less of an allergic risk than traditional platelets.
One interesting component of this research is that researchers initially attempted to create platelets from induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS). However, this approach ran into a significant number of hiccups. The research only began to pay dividends when researchers switched to using adipose (or fatty) tissue. This underscores the importance of being flexible when pursuing new stem cell breakthroughs.
Bone Growth and Healing: An Innovation
Traditionally, stem cell therapy has principally been used in the orthopedic sphere, including as a relatively low cost and low risk alternative to traditional knee replacement therapy. Bone regrowth is an important part of healing from a variety of injuries. But, bone growth is often slow. Therefore, researchers are looking for ways to effectively stimulate bone growth for patients.
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During November 2018, Penn State University announced a breakthrough in stem cell treatment and bone regrowth. Penn State University’s research was predicated on an understanding that the human body has a significant amount of citrate in the skeletal system, although the role of this citrate is still open to some debate and further investigation. If citrate is important in existing bones, then this same substance (citrate) may be needed to help encourage stem cells that may develop into bones to grow at a strong rate. If citrate can help biomaterials grow quickly, then this may be an appropriate alternative to bone grafting. Bone grafting can be expensive, painful, and raise a whole host of potential complications. Bone grafting may also not work in all situations. For example, if a person loses a significant amount of bone due to bone cancer treatment, there may not be enough bone to graft using traditional approaches.
Often, the biggest challenge with traditional bone grafting is that it can cause significant inflammation. Interestingly, the introduction of citrate into synthetically produce bone biomaterial has been shown to dramatically decrease inflammation, which may in turn mean that the bone grafting results will be more successful. Ultimately, one of the most important elements of the recently unveiled research is that citrate provides extra energy to the stem cells via a relatively complex uptake procedure.
Cancer Treatment and Stem Cells
Given the large number of patients every year who are diagnosed with cancer, coupled with the fact that traditional cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation, have significant side effects, researchers are constantly looking for new breakthroughs in cancer treatment. And, stem cells offer a potentially promising approach to treating many specific forms of cancer. However, recent research raises some alarm bells on this front.
In recent research, many stem cell therapies have focused on epigenetic therapy, which turns on or off certain enzymes in cells. The hope was that by turning on or off certain enzymes cancers could be made less aggressive. Shockingly, however, in November, Boston Children’s Hospital researchers announced that one epigenetic therapy had the reverse effect. It actually made lung cancer more aggressive.
This does not mean that epigenetic therapy should simply be reduced out-of-hand. Instead, researchers should explore different enzymes, such as: histone demethylases. Early stages of animal testing (on mice) have shown promise. This confirms some earlier results that also focused on histone demethylases. And, the results again underscore that researchers need to show flexibility and not operate from preconceived notions. The field is simply evolving very quickly; and research and beliefs need to be regularly updated.
And the Heart
Millions of Americans are impacted by a wide range of heart conditions, such as hypertension. These heart conditions can generate a wide range of negative spillover effects. Medical research has introduced a wide variety of breakthroughs on treating these conditions. However, some problems still remain untreatable. Therefore, scientists have turned their attention to other alternatives, including using stem cell treatment for heart conditions.
Recent research has shown that human-induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPCSs) are able to produce cells that mirror human heart atria cells. These cells do not simply look the same. In reality, they also perform in the same way as standard heart atria cells. This means that these newly created stem cells are able to beat; and they also respond to pharmacological interventions in the same way that normal heart cells do! This opens up avenues for extensive additional research on a variety of topics.
This research could clearly be extended to treating patients with a wide variety of heart diseases and conditions. But, perhaps its most dramatic impact will be on the pharmaceutical industry. If stem cells respond in the same way that human cells do, then pharmaceutical companies will not need to test all heart medications on people. Some of the testing can be done in a test tube on identical stem cell atria tissue. This testing may be particularly impactful when exploring treatment for atrial fibrillation which impacts millions of Americans. Results could also potentially be extended to other arrhythmias.
However, additional research still needs to be performed on this topic to provide more insight into the ins and outs of stem cells impact on heart diseases and conditions.
Research in the stem cell sphere continues to grow and evolve rapidly. During November 2018, researchers from around the world announced exciting breakthroughs in specific spheres of stem cell research, such as bone regrowth, cancer treatment, and the replication of cardiac cells; and, at the same time, researchers also offered cautionary notes (such as, being very thoughtful and intention before embracing epigenetic therapy). Ultimately, much of this new research is still at a very early stage of exploration and testing. And, this means that firm conclusions cannot be offered till scientists have more information from both animal and human testing.
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