In recent years, the technology surrounding stem cells and stem cell therapy has exploded. Each month sees new results and innovations released from labs around the world. These innovations have allowed treatments to be extended to a wide range of illnesses and conditions that were previously untreatable using traditional medical approaches. And, this has positively impacted tens of thousands of lives around the world.
Given how quickly stem cell therapy has evolved in the last 10 to 15 years, many people are wondering how the therapy will continue to develop in the short- to medium-term.
The Future of Stem Cell Therapy
It is important to remember that there is not necessarily one right answer to this question, regarding the future of stem cell therapy. Different researchers have different opinions, fueled by various factors. It is also critical to note that in recent years stem cell therapy has become a big money industry. This shapes how much money is invested and where this money is spent, for both good and bad.
Yet, despite these varied opinions, there are certain spheres of stem cell therapy that are getting even more attention than others. For example, tissue engineering is one high interest area. Tissue engineering refers to the process by which stem cells are harvested and used to produce a variety of different tissues or organs that would then be suitable for human transplantation. Ideally, if tissue engineering proved to be effective, then the current shortage of organs could be addressed. At present, there are simply not enough donors to meet all patient needs; as a result of this, many patients die while waiting for a suitable donor. Tissue engineering would mean that this dangerous wait for organs would not longer need to happen; treatment could be much more readily available. Although this is extremely promising, effective tissue engineering will require cooperation between specialists in a wide variety of fields, including: doctors, engineers, and material science specialists.
Harvesting Cells from Umbilical Cords
Another interesting innovation is the idea to bank a person’s stem cells at birth, proactively considering future medical considerations. Many medical professionals advocate for this, because they believe that an infant’s stem cells at birth are as close to ideal as possible. Simply put, these stem cells have not been damaged or impacted by a wide variety of environmental factors. Stem cells can be harvested from the umbilical cord, but they can also be collected in large numbers from the infant’s placenta. At the moment, one of the drawbacks associated with stem cell banking is that only private companies are offering this option. This means that it is costly and many insurance companies do not cover it. As a result, this is a treatment that may only be financially feasible for a small segment of patients.
Utilizing Adult Stem Cells
While stem cells found in infancy work much better, they still exist while in the adult body. Adult stem cells are much easier to use thanks to their abundance and source. Cutting out all use of embryonic stem cells means getting around most of the controversy covering the issue, allowing for better funding and more research.
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While embryonic stem cells or ESCs have their advantages, adult stem cells still may pave the future for stem cell research. Regardless, ESCs are pluripotent which means that they can turn into any other type of cell that’s needed. Adult stem cells don’t have similar functions and each only turn into one other type of cell. Also, ESCs can be grown and multiplied in a lab setting whereas adult stem cells have no such hope. The latter can only be found in a patient’s bone marrow, fat or skin, and can’t be duplicated without outside forces. While there have been advances to artificially multiply adult stem cells, none have been able to work out beyond clinical studies.
Regardless of ESCs advantages over adult stem cells, there is still a very integral point to be made in the latter’s favor. Scientists and researchers are looking into using stem cells to replace vital organs more and more, especially through tissue engineering. However, using the ESCs, even if they’re from the original patient, causes a high risk of the body rejecting the new organ. With adult stem cells, the risk is dramatically reduced as they’re coming from the patient’s body nearly at the same time of treatment. For this reason alone, as organ rejection is a high concern with stem cell research, more scientists are turning to working with the adult versions for future use.
Obstacles and Controversy
Embryo use in stem cell research is a highly controversial debate. The controversy spans into ethical, moral and religious conversations to the point that even funding is difficult to pass. The views of stem cell positions runs much in the same vein as the controversy of abortions and speaks about when exactly does life begin once conception occurs. This is yet another reason why adult stem cells have a better advantage but they still face their own controversy mostly by association.
Because of the ongoing debate, research quickly becomes scarce due to lack of funds. This is where the issue of public funding may dwindle but private funding rises. Public funding is much more preferable as this gets more work done, more researchers involved and an affordable final product. However, when there is so much controversy circling the situation, using public tax money may not be the most attractive option. Still, there are very vocal and powerful groups of people who support stem cell research and are willing to fund the research in a more private matter. Whereas public funding ensure regulations and accessibility, private funding’s main focus is to reach the final goal. While the end result may not be FDA approved, there will still be access to the medication by some means. Private funding can help pave the building blocks and answer questions that cause the controversy in the first place, hopefully opening the door for public funding in the near future.
With private funding being the primary means of research, accessibility is shortened dramatically. The research and final product is still available but the cost may be so outrageous that average people may not ever be able to afford it. Financial accessibility for stem cell related cures will likely be impossible for many to achieve, especially when medical insurance won’t cover any part of the bill. Privately funded medications, especially for medicines that are in so high demand, allows the owner to set the price to whatever they like. Furthermore, if the privately funded drug is made before public funds can reached the finish line, then the original company can continue renewing the patent for years to come and prevent generic, more affordable options being available to consumers.
Working Towards Advancement
Simply by focusing more research on adult stem cells, we can eliminate most of the controversy and potentially lay the groundwork for public funding and easy access for patients. Unfortunately, adult stem cells don’t work as well as ESCs but they do work. Creating new organs and repairing nerve damage is just the start to what stem cells can achieve. A lot more research is required to reach the place we want to be, but we’re already working towards this future. While we can put research on the path we wish to take, only time will tell what discoveries and advancements will be made tomorrow.
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