Posted: Fri, February 08, 2013 | By: Technology
by Dick Pelletier
Science and technology have utterly transformed humanity during my lifetime. Where forecasts of the future used to be measured in decades, today, new medical discoveries are announced almost weekly. This article focuses on cutting-edge research that promises a healthier and longer lifespan for all of us.
A major advance was achieved recently when scientists learned they could generate stem cells from adult skin cells, erasing ethical concerns of destroying embryos to harvest stem cells. But an even more important technology is now unfolding, bioprinting, building human tissues with inkjet-like 3D printers.
Perhaps one of the best examples for success in this fledgling new science can be found in researcher Anthony Atala’s lab at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
Atala was the first to build organs from scratch. He created biodegradable scaffolding, seeded them with bladder and muscle cells from patients, and then implanted the new bladders in nine children. These fortunate kids were soon able to throw away their urine bag and begin living a normal life.
The Wake Forest lab has since expanded to include more than 30 body parts. In a recent article, Atala said; “If a salamander can do it, why can’t we?” During a TED presentation, Atala printed a human kidney in a process that he explained could one day be used to create patient tissues and organs on demand.
Scanners would build a 3-D image of tissues to be replaced, then a tiny sample smaller than a postage stamp would ‘seed’ the printer with self-replicating stem cells, yielding quantities necessary to print, layer-by-layer, rejection-free new tissues and/or organs that will replace all of the damaged or worn body parts.
However, many worry that this revolutionary science will not arrive soon enough. The U.S. Government lists 118,000 Americans waiting for organ transplants. Fewer than 25,000 are expected to receive them, and 100,000 could die waiting. In addition, half of all those who receive organs may die from rejection issues within 3 years. Stem cells hold the potential to end all of these cruel deaths.
These wonders might also tip the scales in the war against cancer. Scientists found that multiplying cells are the source of most cancers. In every tumor lies a group of stem cells that feed malignant tissues.
Whitehead Institute’s Robert Weinberg believes this explains why tumors often reappear after chemo and radiation seemingly destroyed them. It also suggests new strategy for developing anti-cancer drugs: to focus more on attacking cancer stem cells, not by just indiscriminately killing any cell to shrink tumors.
In another important area, researchers found that stem cells degrade as people age. This prompted entrepreneurs at Stem Cell Backup to enable people to ‘bank’ their stem cells for future use. Founder Patrick O’Malley says the company is exploring marketing partnerships to expand this futuristic concept.
And Las Vegas, NV scientist Walter Goldstein and partners, Warren Miller and Robert Risacher are creating a product called IVRBC that produces universal red blood cells from human stem cells, matching blood to patient needs. The startup is now accepting funding; and could gain FDA approval by 2018.
Finally, the following scenario illustrates an amazing possibility of tomorrow’s stem cell future:
A monthly body scan reveals damaged heart muscles, placing you at risk for a heart attack. No problem, your doctor prescribes a ‘supersonic drug gun’ that propels regenerative protein molecules into the bloodstream. The new materials immediately bind to damaged heart muscle cells, touching off a chemical reaction that prompts your body to make new cells, quickly restoring you to perfect health.
Though this scene may sound futuristic, Hydra Biosciences researchers say their company has already demonstrated successful tests of this procedure with rats, and they hope to launch human trials soon.
Many now believe that stem cells represent the best remedy to eliminate disease. Researchers have found that by replacing aging cells with new stem cells, many age-related diseases can be stopped; and as a bonus, patients receiving stem cell treatments experience renewed youthful energy and strength.
The list of benefits from stem cells may only be limited by our imagination. Comments welcome.