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Stem Cell Advances

Let’s talk about stem cells for a bit.

Few technologies are as contested as stem cell treatments; particularly embryonic stem cells, harvested from embryos specifically for research purposes. The National Institute of Health has a helpful FAQ here that explains more about stem cells generally, including the embryonic variety and the newer induced pluripotent form (where adult stem cells are regressed into an embryonic-stem-cell-like state). Despite the controversy around embryonic stem cells, stem cells generally (including, but not limited to, the embryonic kind) offer enormous potential for radical treatments.

Still, many of these treatments are in the research phase, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued some warnings about stem cells. Essentially, the FDA warns that stem cell treatments are still being approved, and consumers ought to be wary when approached with information about radical stem cell cures; these pitches are often just scams designed to bilk desperate patients and their families out of money. On the other hand, some tech companies prefer to operate overseas because of the regulatory morass imposed by the FDA here in the United States; while the regulations are well intentioned to ensure patient safety (to give the FDA the benefit of the doubt) they frustrate companies that want to get cures to patients as quickly as possible. I’ll outline some of the proposed treatments below:

Researchers in London are conducting clinical trials where stem cells are introduced into the retina of patients that suffer from blindness-causing diseases.  Concurrently, researchers at UCLA are reporting early success with the procedure. Through the first four months, the treatment appears successful and safe. However, “many more years” of trials are needed to further confirm the initial results. Additionally, the trial offered only slight improvement to vision, though curing the disease doesn’t seem to have been the point of the trial.

An article from NPR offers more information about the same experiment, including that the experiment was the first time that humans were helped by stem cells. This article also describes in more detail the improvement made by the test subjects; the improvement seems to be substantial. Scientists in both articles are very careful to reiterate that this should not be touted as a cure for blindness, but only encouraging initial results. Thus far, however, the results seem very impressive indeed.

I’m a little confused by the implication that the previous article makes that the research was the first time that stem cells were used to help humans because this video claims that scientists have used stem cells to grow a new trachea (wind pipe) for patients. The video is a little dry, but I include it below in its entirety for you to judge:

In other experiments, scientists are researching ways to cure Alzheimer’s Disease and regenerating muscle tissue that forms vascular walls. The first set of research ought to eventually allow doctors to introduce healthy neurons into the brains of people afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease, essentially curing the disease (especially if they can also remove the defective or dead cells; another project Aubrey DeGray and crew are making headway on.) Stem cells have also been introduced into mice and seems to help them live longer, healthier lives. Aubrey DeGray generally predicts that 10-15 years after scientists are able to double the lifespan of mice, they ought to be able to do the same for humans. This research suggests that the mouse-lifespan threshold may soon be met.

In sum, the FDA is right that currently much of the work being done with stem cells is research based or otherwise preliminary, and patients should be wary of supposed stem cell treatments for almost any condition. However, just because the treatments aren’t here yet doesn’t mean that they won’t be soon, and current research suggests that within the next several years stem cell treatments will move from hoax to fact.

Artificially intelligent cars have received a lot of press lately, so look out for my article about them in the next few days.

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Categories: legal issues Tags: , , ,
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