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Stem Cell Research
Benefits and Future Hopes
Every year we witness the introduction of new drugs and medical technologies which improve the health and lives of individuals around the world - and for these we are truly thankful. Yet there remain a number of devastating diseases and illnesses including diabetes, retinal degeneration and Parkinson’s which continue to challenge medical scientists and the well-being of people everywhere.
Finding treatments, or better still preventions, for these, and other enduring human illnesses will require nothing short of a medical miracle. Stem cells have the potential to create that miracle. They can replace or repair any damaged tissue, they have the potential to tackle degenerative diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cancer, from diabetes to heart disease, to leukaemia and sight loss.
As with all medical practices our ability to contemplate the possibilities offered by stem-cell based therapies is not mere speculation, it is the result of many years of research, and the reality that stem cell techniques are already being applied in a number of cases to the greatest effect.
Take cirrhosis as an example, one of the biggest killers in the United Kingdom. Previously, the only treatment available for those with irreversible liver failure was transplantation, which brings the agonising wait for a donor and the real potential for rejection and infection. Now, scientists from London’s Imperial College have raised hopes for the future by repairing patients’ livers using bone marrow adult stem cells collected from their own blood.
In fact, adult stem cells are currently being used to treat over one hundred different ailments and their potential benefits and applications continue to be explored at dramatic pace. Just next year a team of surgeons from University College London will attempt to repair severed nerves in patient’s arms with stem cells taken from their noses. Tried and tested in animal studies it is hoped that this technique may pave the way towards a cure for more serious spinal injuries, including paralysis.
To date, adult stem cell research has yielded a greater number of clinical trials and applied treatments than embryonic research. In part because adult stem cells have proved easier to manipulate in the laboratory but also because the stigma associated with embryonic research has deterred investors. However, embryonic stem cells have properties which adult stem cells do not and it is critically important that we pursue both research avenues in parallel if we are to benefit fully from the potential which stem cells hold.
We must be aware however that the prospects in this field are exciting but uncertain. Scientific breakthroughs might be unexpectedly fast or frustratingly elusive. For many supporters, this sense of discovery at the cutting edge of human science is the greatest incentive to become involved. For many others it will be the personal experience or tragedy of witnessing a degenerative condition that could be made a thing of medical history.