Stem cells: a key factor in many diseases

Thanks to their unique ability to differentiate into other cell types, stem cells could be the key factor in future medicine

At this year’s meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), thousands of leading researchers in the field of stem cell research discussed the prospect of a disease-free future and reaffirmed the crucial role of stem cells in this regard.

Because of their unique ability to differentiate into other cell types, stem cells could be the key factor in future medicine. These cells are extraordinarily ductile and, under the right conditions, can be transformed into any type of cell needed for a given treatment.

Dr. Deepak Srivastava, one of the world’s leading stem cell experts and next president of ISSCR, presented his first-hand experience in cardiac stem cell development. His laboratory focuses on the use of stem cells for the regeneration of heart tissue damaged by heart attack.

«Think about diseases where organs have lost cells they need to function, and have little to no capacity to regenerate themselves. […] But with stem cells, we no longer accept this idea that people have disease from lost cells. The aim is to regenerate damaged tissues in the cells – restore those cells – and fix the crux of the problem,» says Dr. Srivastava.

Alongside stem cell research, gene editing also plays a key role in the medicine of the future: by combining the two disciplines, you have more opportunities to understand and treat diseases and disorders such as sickle cell anemia. From a small amount of blood of the patient affected by the disease, it is possible to modify the cells so that they regress to their state of embryonic stem cells. Finally, gene editing can correct the genetic mutations that cause the disease, then convert the cells back into mature cells and “return” them to the patient through a simple blood transfusion.

Stem cell research and gene editing can also improve drug research: for example, the biggest challenge for Alzheimer’s patients is to find a gene therapy. In this case, stem cells are differentiated into brain cells that present the mutation which causes the disorder, so as to allow a more precise pharmaceutical screening.

«Stem cell research is not just for regeneration and replacement, but also for discovering appropriate drugs for a host of diseases,» explains Dr. Srivastava, «Several clinical studies are underway right now – trials for spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease, and even blindness. […] When you step back and think about it, it is the convergence of multiple technologies that help us treat human diseases in a very different way than before».

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