The future of medicine is evolving at high speed. With advances in technology, doctors and scientists continue to create better treatments for injuries, chronic illnesses, and cancer. The future of medicine has always been a topic of speculation; some go so far as to believe that, with the right medical research, humans will be immune from all time and disease. This may seem like wishful thinking to many, but the idea may not be as far-fetched as one might think.
The study of stem cells has brought to light an entirely new field of healing previously unheard of. Stem cells are a form of cell with particular properties that make them a powerful medical tool. First, stem cells can duplicate themselves seemingly unendingly, and second, they can become just about any other form of cell, from bone to skin. These properties give stem cells the potential to treat many forms of illness and injury.
Stem cells are most often used today to treat injuries, such as those acquired from sports. After an injury, the nearby cells degenerate much more quickly than they can be regenerated, resulting in pain and potential long-term complications. A number of studies that introduce stem cells into injured knees, spinal cords, and shoulders show a marked increase in the regeneration of the injured joint. One study, conducted with rats, showed stem cells to be the most effective and efficient treatment to spinal cord injuries.
These treatments aren’t just restricted to joint injuries, however. Because stem cells can take the shape of almost any form of cell they are introduced to, they can be used to treat skin, bone, and organ injuries as well.
In a future where stem cells are commonly used to treat injuries, we may see a marked decrease in the downtime and pain a patient may have from a severe injury. There is also the decreased potential of re-injury due to weakened tissue surrounding the site, as stem cells can strengthen and rebuild the area.
The Cure to Cancer
The fight against cancer is a complex and often traumatizing experience for patients going through radiation therapy and surgery. Due to the number and variety of cancers, there is no “one size fits all” treatment. However, stem cells seem to show exceptional promise in treating various forms of cancer.
In most cases, stem cell treatments don’t directly target cancer, but work in tandem with an existing treatment, such as chemotherapy. It does, however, seem to be singularly effective against leukemia and myeloma. This seems to be the case because of white blood cells created after a healthy donor’s stem cell transplant. Thousands of children with leukemia have been treated with stem cells in marrow and blood. The children showed marked healing and recovery, and freedom from their leukemia.
There is still much to test with stem cells versus cancer. They may not be the sole weapon that eventually cures cancer, but in tandem with other treatments, there is promise for the future of stem cells and their effectiveness against cancer.
Reversing Genetic and Chronic Diseases
The strongest body of research on stem cells and their use as a cure is in treating genetic and chronic disorders. As of now, researchers claim stem cells can cure illnesses such as sickle cell disease and anemia. By introducing donor stem cells into the marrow of the patient, a healthy amount of normal red blood cells will be produced, erasing the disease.
These cures are a known solution to those illnesses, but there are plenty of other illnesses where stem cell therapy shows assurance. These include arthritis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes. In arthritis, degradation of the joint’s cartilage can be stopped and reverses, correcting the aching joints. With Parkinson’s, dying neurons responsible for the lack of motor functions can be rejuvenated and replaced with healthy neurons grown with stem cells.
Some of the other ailments that could potentially be treated or cured with stem cells in the future are stroke, schizophrenia, paralysis, blindness, tooth decay…the list seems endless. In the future, you may find there are few treatments that stem cell therapy can’t cure.
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The End of Aging
When an egg is fertilized, the cells that divide and multiply are stem cells, not yet defined as muscle or bone. After we’re born, our body and brain still contain stem cells that heal or replace damaged tissue, and as we age, the number of non-differentiated stem cells in our body naturally declines. But what happens if we keep adding new stem cells into the body?
In studies conducted on mice, new stem cells were introduced to certain parts of the brain, counteracting certain aspects of the aging process and slowing the aging process altogether. Another study on anti-aging properties of genes and stem cells states that “stem cells could be a backup system for the living organism to replace damaged tissue or worn-out cells. Thus, stem cells could be a core factor in deciding aging.”
The prospect of living forever might be a little far-fetched, but these findings suggest that human lifespans could be significantly lengthened. Not only that, but the elderly would become much less frail in their bone and muscle structure, and could even become a lot more energetic and active again.
Why Not Now?
Because stem cell research is such a new field of study (in the grand scheme of medicine), there is still a lot to be learned; how stem cells react with the rest of the body, if there are serious adverse reactions or side effects, and so on. There are many complications with the study and use of stem cells to cure illnesses and injuries.
Risk of Host Rejection
For instance, the risk of stem cells being rejected by the host is still too high to ignore. This namely happens if the stem cells used are from a donor. However, stem cells from the patient themselves can be used for this treatment process, lowering but not eliminating the risk of rejection. Infection of the injection site is the most common side effect of stem cell transplants. If the patient is seriously ill or has a weakened immune system, an infection could be extremely dangerous.
Their Duplication Properties
Another issue facing stem cell therapies is that, due to their duplication properties, these cells may migrate and duplicate in parts of the body they aren’t medically introduced to. The cells can then become dangerous tumors or form inappropriate cells in various parts of the body. On the other side of this spectrum, stem cells cannot create new joints or organs out of thin air; they must be modified and introduced to similar cells as their target in order to grow. Cartilage that has nearly disappeared due to arthritis cannot be completely reformed, so the earlier stem cell therapy is used, the better the healing.
The FDA has yet to accept any form of stem cell treatment due to the risks and complications that may arise. Since there is little evidence in this fledgling field of research, there must be more work done to prove the benefits of stem cell therapies, and how risks can be mitigated. Still, the pros seem to be outweighing the cons.
Stem cells provide an open window to the treatment of a wide range of issues, from injuries to cancer and genetic diseases. In the future, we may no longer get ill, suffer from injuries, or even age at all. Therapies involving stem cells can be personalized to the patient’s needs and tailored to their recovery plan. As researcher Susan Solomon states, “One day we will all have stem cell lines that will help inform treatment to any disease that may ail us.” Research continues, but the potential for stems cells is too great to ignore.
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