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The Great Potential of Stem Cells

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Science was good to us in the last century: 100 years ago we learned to put patients to sleep for surgery and then reliably wake them up afterwards; 60 years ago we started producing antibiotics; the last 30 years heralded a better understanding of genetics, cancer and heart disease, as well as some new therapies.

Nevertheless, many of our treatments remain primitive and I suspect that 60 years from now, doctors will view our practices in a similar manner to how we viewed the pre antibiotic age, or a time when the lucky patients had a bottle of whiskey for surgical anesthesia. In caring for chronic diseases, targeting therapies, and regenerating damaged tissues, we still have much to learn. Today's presidential order, lifting the ban on using new embryonic stem cell lines for research may help.

Human Embryonic Stem Cells (aka ESCs) have tremendous potential. Unlike other cells they can potentially be "programmed" to replace any cell in the body." The President's decree will allow NIH funded researchers (usually our nation's best) the opportunity to conduct important research with these promising cells.

After the use of human ESCs was banned in 2001, many prominent researchers could no longer pursue this work if they wanted to receive federal funding from the NIH. Many scientists migrated abroad or to places like California, where Governor Schwarzenegger helped secure $3 billion in state funding to support this research.

Today, after a seven-year delay, more researchers from around the country can again begin pursuing this line of research. Dr. Alan Trouson is the President of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Below follow some of his thoughts on several scientific and therapeutic directions where human Embryonic Stem Cell research might lead ( I have taken liberty to simplify for easier reading):

Spinal injuries
Preliminary studies are planned to study use of ESC-derived cells for spinal cord repair. This approach was based on data from an animal studies that show enhanced regeneration and improved mobility when ESC-derived cells were transplanted shortly after a spinal cord injuries.

Diabetes
In the area of diabetes, a partnership between a biotechnology firm and a number of academic institutions has produced pancreatic beta islet cells from ESCs. This work could potentially restore insulin production in Type I diabetics who currently require lifelong insulin therapy. Currently, this group is investigating ways to overcome the immune responses that initially destroyed the insulin-producing cells. With hope diabetics may no longer rquire daily insulin injections.

Heart attacks
After a heart attack muscle cells in the heart die and cease to function. Patients currently cannot regain this function. Researchers have been ablt to produce all of the cells needed for cardiac repair from ESCs. In animal studies, these ESC-derived cells were able to successfully integrate into functioning rat hearts, with some minimal but encouraging improvements in fuction. Most recently, engineers have begun developing fiber scaffolds that could someday be used to grow functional tissue that might be transplanted as a patch after sever heart attacks.

Blindness
Researchers hope to be able to restore sight by generating ESC-derived specialized eye tissues that could be injected or transplanted as patches. Early animal studies have been promising as mice have regained the ability to see light and dark, with the goal of discrimintating shapes underway.

Cancer
ESC research is also shedding light on how a normal cells function. Researchers hope that by creating dormant cancer cells from ESCs, they will understand more about the cellular process of these cells and how to target cells that are likely to recur after initial treatments.

Understanding genetic disorders
ESCs hold great promise for studying many genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease. The capacity to recreate these disease conditions in cells in the lab will help researchers look for new drugs. Such drugs might significantly prolong the healthy years of life for an individual with a Huntington's or other genetic diseases.

Drug screening and development
ESCs will also allow scientists to screen drugs for safety and effectiveness. Creating artificial cell lines from ESCs can reducing the need for using animals as test subjects. In many diseases, cells derived from normal ESCs can be used to study diseases and new drugs. In addition to reducing the need for animal testing of new drugs, environmental and drug toxicities tests currently performed on rodents can be replaced with tests of toxicity in ESC-derived cells.

Today marks a renewed national commitment to science, medicine and discovery. Now lets hope the scientists can take our hopes further.