Stem cell research continues both in the United States and in laboratories around the world. Each month, new innovations are announced that provide hope to millions of individuals who have diseases and conditions that have tended not to respond to traditional medical interventions. And, January 2019 was no different. It was a month with countless important breakthroughs; many of which are described in greater detail below.
Breakthroughs in Treating Vision Challenges
Many people are affected by vision challenges; and being blind or vision-impaired can significantly impact an individual’s quality of life. However, because blindness is caused by many different things, it has been difficult for scientists and doctors to come up with one straightforward solution to address this challenge. And, despite some thoughts that stem cells could offer a breakthrough, until recently, stem cells have not been extensively used to treat vision challenges.
Limbal Stem Cell Deficiency
A recent study focused on one particular type of blindness, limbal stem cell deficiency. This particular form of vision impairment is often caused by mechanical issues, such as exposure to heat and chemicals. But, it can also be caused by diseases processes, such as: aniridia. In addition to eyesight impairment, limbal stem cell deficiency can cause a wide range of other issues, including redness and pain.
Recognizing that limbal stem cell deficiencies have failed to respond to traditional interventions, scientists at the University of Edinburgh launched a new study. In this study, stem cells were harvested from the corneas of cadavers (deceased patients who had agreed to donate their organs for medical purposes). These stem cells are then grown out into a variety of eye cells. Patients received these stem cell injections after having their immune systems suppressed so that they do not reject this transplant. Although this study only involved a handful of patients, fewer than 20, initial results were promising. However, more research needs to be carried out with a broad range of impacted patients.
Retinal Ganglion Cells
This was not the only breakthrough in terms of vision issues. A scientist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis explored the development of retinal ganglion cells, attempting to better understand how these cells function in the real world. Ideally, by better understanding these cells, researchers may be able to come up with breakthrough treatments for glaucoma (and other eye conditions). Glaucoma is reported to be the second highest cause of blindness around the world, affecting millions of people. Stem cells provide insight into glaucoma, because “glaucoma doesn’t develop in immature cells that are still growing; we want to get the cells we study as close as possible to the stage when they start to develop problems,” according to the lead researcher, Jason Meyer. Stem cells are able to mirror these conditions better than any other type of cell, providing researchers with insight and flexibility.
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Research Continues into Cancer Treatment
Another popular area for research utilizing stem cell therapies is cancer. Stem cell therapies have largely been used to treat a variety of blood cancers, such as leukemia. However, in recent years, the treatment has been extended into hard-to-treat cancers with low survival rates, such as pancreatic cancer. One potentially exciting breakthrough was registered in January of this year by researchers at UCLA.
What did these researchers discover? They determined that it is possible to coax plutipotent stem cells into developing into T-cells. Why is this significant? It is significant because T-cells have been shown to be effective in fighting cancer cells; and, thus, if there are more T-cells then it is likely that the body will have a better chance of fighting off cancer cells. Cancer treatment may be the biggest implication from this research finding, however, it is not the only possible impact. For example, a spike in T-cells could help people with a range of other illnesses, such as: HIV/AIDS and autoimmune conditions.
These research results are also a breakthrough because they remove the need to collect T-cells from patients and then harvest these cells. This collection and harvesting process is costly and complicated, and it may not be effective for all patients, particularly those with low T-cell levels. In those cases, it may simply be impossible to collect enough T-cells to grow them to an effective level.
According to the UCLA team, they were able to succeed where other research teams had failed, because they utilized artificial thymic organoids. This again underscores the importance of having supportive environments for stem cells. Stem cells do not grow or multiply in a vacuum.
An Interesting Discovery
Another study also produced results that may have striking implications for oncological patients. A team at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research found that the body has a hematopoietic system that produces adult stem cells and compensates for any failures of the body’s bone marrow. These researchers note that when the body is under stress or is otherwise struggling this back-up system will kick in and compensate for a wide range of problems.
Autoimmune Diseases and Stem Cell Therapy
As a group, autoimmune diseases remain one of the most confusing classes of diseases to treat. These diseases are highly individualized to the specific patient. For example, scleroderma in one patient may look dramatically different than scleroderma in another patient. Adding to this difficulty is that very few effective treatments have emerged in the last 50 years; many of these illnesses are still being treated with steroids that were developed decades earlier. However, a UCLA team has recently discovered that a stem cell intervention may be able to cure IPEX, a formerly life-threatening autoimmune disorder.
This research relied on using a viral vector. This viral vector delivered a modified, non-mutated gene, to the body’s stem cells. Ultimately, this allowed the non-diseased stem cells to multiply at a rapid rate. With these new stem cells in place, the body no longer attacked its own tissues and immune system. Although preliminary research has only attempted this viral vector delivery to patients with IPEX, it may be applicable to a wide range of other autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis.
It is important to note that the procedure utilized by the UCLA team has not yet been approved for human testing. Patients should take these promising results with a grain of salt, at least until it has undergone additional testing.
A significant amount of research is conducted into stem cells and how stem cell therapies can be an effective treatment for individuals with a wide range of challenging medical conditions. In January, researchers were pleased to announce numerous promising results. Some of these results focused on vision challenges and how stem cells can address these challenges, improving the vision of impacted patients. However, many of these studies are early stage and have not yet included a wide patient population. More research needs to be carried out.
Also, a significant amount of research continues to be conducted into how stem cell therapy can change the course of cancer treatment, both for blood cancers and for cancers that have low survival rates, such as pancreatic cancer. Perhaps the most important breakthrough has been the process of generating significant amounts of T-cells from pluripotent stem cells. Although this study was focused on gaining information about how stem cell therapy can help patients with cancer, it can be extended to a wide range of other health challenges.
Moving forward, one can anticipate that in the months to come there will be even more innovations and breakthroughs that will be reported.
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