Nepal | January 17, 2021

Medicine’s Holy Grail: Stem cells are our big new hope

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It is, perhaps, time stem cell-based regenerative therapies, the new kid on the block, are regarded and evaluated without bias in terms of ethical issues and primacy. This could, in turn, explain why cutting-edge treatment options, including stem cell therapy, as open-minded clinicians observe, maybe somewhat ‘heroic’ at times

Aristotle’s doctrine of the ‘seamless’ relationship that exists between mind, body and soul is being increasingly used in medical treatment today—because human health is primarily harmonious balance. This isn’t a biological evolution; it’s actually physiological advance. It bids fair to a whole, new awakening in medicine—viz., stem cell-based research and therapy to repair and/or refurbish damaged organs, or constituents, in the human system without the need for transplant procedures.

Stem cells are a class of undifferentiated cells endowed with the ability to ‘differentiate’ into specialised cell types. They are ‘derived’ from two key source— embryos formed during development (embryonic stem cells) and adult tissue (adult stem cells). They do not serve any one function. They have the ability to serve any function, after they are ‘coached’ to specialise.

Every cell in the body, for example, is derived from the first few stem cells formed in the early stages of embryological development.

Stem cells extracted from embryos can, as a result be ‘tutored’ to become any desired cell type. This makes them persuasive enough to regenerate damaged tissue under the right conditions and also propel new, exciting possibilities in medical research, including advanced, or super-specialised, treatment of illness, or disease.

Stem cell research and therapy are composite, too; they may also appear grandiose with ardent, or overzealous, proponents. The reality may, therefore, be as unrealistic as it may appear to be. More so, because the stem cell rhetoric is now at its peak, thanks to the media.

It is, perhaps, time stem cell-based regenerative therapies, the new kid on the block, are regarded and evaluated without bias in terms of ethical issues and primacy. This could, in turn, explain why cutting-edge treatment options, including stem cell therapy, as open-minded clinicians observe, maybe somewhat ‘heroic’ at times.

The argument is conventional wisdom, by itself, is well endowed with adequate tools — anti-hypertensive drugs and aspirin, to highlight just two examples — to manage heart disease. The protocol has a good clinical record of safety, economics of scale and effectiveness, when promulgated with appropriate preventative measures, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise and relaxation techniques, viz., yoga and meditation.

Put simply, stem cell therapy mirrors broad categories with essential concepts relating to uniformity, sometimes lurking beneath science, sometimes above science, or beyond the realms of science.

Hence, the questions are as exciting as the therapy per se. What disease states can stem cells address, what diseases can be targeted, what patients benefit, what are the costs, or how does stem cell therapy compare in terms of the options available? Or, what should be the key goal for changing the course of innate illness states, such as early-onset diabetes, or restoring the heart from physiological distress to effective function, or reinstating the spine after injury to its pristine healthy state, or ‘revamping’ damaged muscles in heart disease?

The answers are just as ground-breaking, because stem cell therapy offers tangible, positive outcomes in alleviating suffering. It proclaims a noble pursuit in the service of humanity—improving health and providing a better quality of life. In other words, stem cell therapy has all the bearings to add life to your years, not just years to your life.

While it is agreed that stem cell therapy could ease the damage caused by disease, most critics are not enthused about the fact that the therapy could ‘turnaround’ the immune system. What’s more, the immune system is a big worry in terms of ‘tapping’ the clinical efficacy of stem cell-based therapies.

Picture this—stem cell therapy is touted as a ‘promising treatment’ for diabetes, but it is possibly a tad restricted because augmenting the functional beta-cells is no easy ‘manna’ to rectifying the ‘causal’ autoimmune dilemma. Well, the fact also is—stem cells could be therapeutically employed to treat nerve damage and chronic disorders, or ‘diseases of affluence’, such as type-2 diabetes and coronary heart disease that cause a high proportion of morbidity and mortality. This is not all.

While dental stem cells have been advantageously employed to treat periodontitis and dental caries— leading to new, useful treatment protocols, including advanced dental research—stem cell therapy is also providing beneficial therapeutic outcomes in COVID-19 patients.

New research suggests that the transplantation of stem cells from the spleen, liver or bone marrow has the therapeutic potential to treat type-1 diabetes. Stem cells from the spleen have ‘reversed’ diabetes in mice, when autoimmunity was kept in ‘suspended animation’.

It’s still early days, although new-fangled approaches to rectifying possible snags with ‘encapsulated’ stem cells, while protecting them from immune assault and permitting insulin ‘surge’, have yielded positive results.

This applies to heart disease, too, the difference being of degree—especially in cases where patients with ventricular remodelling and dysfunction cannot be treated without surgical intervention.

Existing treatment with medications, bypass surgery, or angioplasty, is limited. This is where proponents of regenerative stem cell therapy are buoyant and confident—more so, because human heart cells are capable of recompensing, although they can’t ‘self-heal’, when there is extensive tissue damage due to disease.

This is precisely where stem cells emerge with their roseate ability to providing curative optimism for heart patients—including a new lease of life.

Nidamboor is a wellness physician, independent researcher and author

A version of this article appears in print on November 19, 2020 of The Himalayan Times.

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