The debate over whether to use embryonic stem cells in medical research has been raging for over a decade. But throughout the fight, each year brings new advances in the field of stem cell research. Small breakthroughs bring new hope in the fight against various diseases, such as cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. Here is a list of some of these recent breakthroughs involving both embryonic stem cells as well as adult stem cells.
According to a 2011 article in Science Daily, researches at UCLA have completed the first genome-wide mapping of 5-hydroxymethylcytosine. 5hmC, as it is commonly known, is a DNA modification in embryonic stem cells. It was also discovered that 5hmC is mainly found in active genes. This holds great potential in the fight against cancer because gene regulation plays a key role in the development of the disease. And if it’s possible to control these genes, it’s possible to stop the growth of cancer.
Additionally, studies performed at the University of Connecticut Stem Cell Research Center and the University of Minnesota yielded encouraging results. Mice that were vaccinated with human stem cells developed immunity against colon cancer. Overall, the cancerous tumors in vaccinated mice were drastically reduced compared to the unvaccinated mice. In another study, 13 mice that were treated with cancer-killing immune cells harvested from stem cells resulted in the complete eradication of cancerous tumors.
Alzheimer’s Disease –
An estimated 5.4 million people in the U.S. alone suffer from Alzheimer’s disease – a debilitating neurodegenerative disorder. According to a 2011 article in the Guardian, US researches created mass amounts of Brain neurons by combining chemical growth elements with embryonic stem cells. The neurons that were created in a lab are the exact same neurons (basal forebrain cholinergic neurons) that lead to memory loss when they stop functioning. According to scientists, the ability to harvest near-limitless amounts of these neurons could be key in understanding how to prevent them from dying in the first place. And while this may not be a cure for Alzheimer’s, medical professionals feel this is a major breakthrough in the search for an effective Alzheimer’s treatment.
Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) –
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a common motor neuron disease that afflicts as many as 30,000 Americans each year — with 5600 new cases diagnosed annually. According to a November, 2011 article in the Scientist, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison performed a study in which neurons created from human stem cells were transplanted into mice brains. These cells continued to send and receive nerve impulses after transplant. In other words, these neurons can fully assimilate after the transplant and function as regular, healthy neurons.
On top of this discovery, researches at the same university have been able to grow astrocytes – brain cells that function as guards for neurons and help to prevent diseases of the nervous system. Being able to thoroughly study these heretofore difficult-to-grow cells could lead, experts say, to the discovery of a cure for neurodegenerative disorders such as ALS.
In 2011 the FDA approved clinical trials for embryonic stem cell therapy to treat macular degeneration and macular dystrophy. According to a July article in the Los Angeles Times, two patients became the first to undergo this treatment. This follows almost 20 years of research.
Scientists at the New York Stem Cell Foundation have reported that, for the first time, nuclei of adult skin cells from patients suffering from type 1 diabetes have been combined with donor germ cells (oocytes). The result is that scientists have been able to derive embryonic stem cells from individual patients. This is being hailed as a major breakthrough in the development of patient-specific stem cells that could conceivably lead to more effective treatments for diabetes.
These are just a few of the advances that have been made in the last year. Breakthroughs in stem cell research are occurring constantly, across the entire spectrum of medicine. And if the past is any indicator, advances and breakthroughs will continue to be made for the forseeable future.
Aurora May writes for Family Cord on topics related to the use of cord blood, and the benefits of cord blood banking and cord blood storage.