Stem Cell FAQ Page 2

Q. Is it possible to take embryonic stem cells from an embryo without destroying the embryo?

That’s a hot topic for researchers.

One possible approach involves taking embryonic stem cells from unviable embryos at infertility clinics. Up to 60% of in vitro fertilization embryos produced at infertility clinics are deemed incapable of developing to live birth and aren’t used by the infertile couple. Several studies suggest that some normal cells from such embryos may be useful in creating stem cell lines.

Another possibility is to get embryonic stem cells through a technique used at in vitro fertilization clinics to screen embryos for chromosomal abnormalities before placing an embryo in a woman’s womb.

A third strategy is to reprogram adult stem cells to act like embryonic stem cells.

In August 2005, researchers reported in Science that they had been able to do that in a lab test — but the hybrid stem cells they wound up with weren’t ready for direct therapeutic research.

Q. Have any diseases been cured with embryonic stem cells so far?

A. No.

Human embryonic stem cells were isolated in 1998, says Juan Dominguez-Bendala, PhD.

“We still don’t have any cure, but if you think that it’s only since 1998 and we’re already talking about clinical trials, I cannot think of any other field of medicine that has been so fast,” Dominguez-Bendala tells WebMD.

He is a research assistant professor at the University of Miami’s Diabetes Research Institute and studies stem cells and type 1 diabetes.

“It’s only a matter time of time before we do have well-established clinical protocols,” he says. “So I’m optimistic about it.”

Q. Are embryonic stem cells as promising as they’re said to be?

A. “I think so,” Dominguez-Bendala says. “The problem is when you start hearing about unrealistic expectations. You hear all the time about stem cells being a panacea for all diseases, which is not the case.

“I think this has the potential to revolutionize medicine, by all means,” Dominguez-Bendala says. It’s very promising. The only thing is that it’s not as fast as people would like it to be, because these need to be tested.”

Treating Diseases

Q: Which diseases could be treated with stem cells?

A: Theoretically, virtually any disease could be treated by stem cells. Every disease that we know of happens because cells in the body either are not functioning right or because they are overwhelmed. For instance, after a heart attack, the muscle cells in the heart are not working properly, and if they were replaced by normally functioning cells, your heart would be as good as new. In other diseases, your body has the ability to cure itself but it is overwhelmed. Stem cells can be used to create the cells in the body that are responsible for fighting these diseases and then putting them in the body — the same way an army commander may send in reinforcements to a help a unit that is in danger of losing a battle.

As a matter of fact, scientists may be able to pick the right set of stem cells and make them grow into an organ like the liver or the kidneys. That way, they could generate a lot of replacement organs that could be used for organ transplants when they are needed.

It is important to keep in mind that these are still possibilities. Until a lot more research is done on the subject, we cannot be sure.

“It sounds easier than it is,” Dominguez-Bendala says.

“Normally, the approach that we are following is not to reinvent the wheel but rather look at how nature does it,” he says.

“If you put things in a Petri dish, that’s a very simple way of culturing the cells. If you think about how they develop in the real embryo, that’s an exquisitely complicated environment. So we need to … mimic the biological niche where they develop,” Dominguez-Bendala says.

Examples of the kind of research that is being done using stem cells include:

  • Diabetes : Scientists are trying to get stem cells to turn into insulin-producing cells that could then be put inside the body of a person with diabetes.
  • Parkinson’s disease : In Parkinson’s disease, specific nerve cells in the brain are not working properly. If those cells can be created out of stem cells, they can be used to replace the diseased cells.
  • Heart disease : After a heart attack, a portion of the heart muscle dies. Scientists are trying to get stem cells to make heart muscle cells that would replace the damaged part of the heart.
  • Cancer : In many cancers, like breast cancer, treatments like chemotherapy and radiation can destroy the bone marrow. By using stem cells to recreate the bone marrow, doctors could use more powerful treatments to treat the cancer. Stem cells could also be used to create specific cells that could kill the cancer. If an organ or a chunk of tissue has to be removed or destroyed to get rid of the cancer, stem cells could be used to replace it.
  • Spinal cord injury : Stem cells have been used to make the nerve cells in the spinal cord. This may help or even cure people who have lost use of their arms or legs because of an injury to their spinal cord.
  • Crohn’s disease : This illness is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system doesn’t work properly and starts attacking normal intestinal cells. By removing these misguided immune cells and using stem cells to create healthy replacements, doctors hope to cure these diseases.
  • Genetic diseases : In many genetic diseases, there is a specific defect in the genes. Stem cells that do not have this defect could be used to correct the problem. Type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and spinal cord injury are three conditions that Dominguez-Bendala says show the most promise in stem cell studies.

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