Scientists have been interested in cell biology since the advent of microscopes in the 1800s. Cell propagation and differentiation were witnessed for the first time and cells were recognised as the building blocks of life, capable of giving rise to other cells and key to understanding human development.
In the early 1900s European researchers realised that the various type of blood cells e.g. white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets all came from a particular ‘stem cell’. However, it was not until 1963 that the first quantitative descriptions of the self-renewing activities of transplanted mouse bone marrow cells were documented by Canadian researchers Ernest A McCulloch and James E Till.
Research into adult stem cells in animals and in humans has been ongoing since this time, and bone marrow transplants – actually a transplant of adult stem cells – have in fact been used in patients receiving radiation and chemotherapy since the 1950s.
Developments in biotechnology in the 1980s and 1990s saw the introduction of techniques for targeting and altering genetic material and methods for growing human cells in the laboratory. These advances really opened the doors for human stem cell research.
Then in 1998, James Thomson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, successfully removed cells from spare embryos at fertility clinics and grew them in the laboratory. He launched stem cell research into the limelight, establishing the world’s first human embryonic stem cell line which still exists today.
Since this discovery, a plethora of evidence has emerged to suggest that these embryonic stem cells are capable of becoming almost any of the specialised cells in the body and therefore have the potential to generate replacement cells for a broad array of tissues and organs such as the heart, liver, pancreas and nervous system.
Progress in stem cell research is now astounding, with over 2,000 research papers on embryonic and adult stem cells being published in reputable scientific journals every year. Embryonic stem cell research has yet to yield any clinical trials however; adult stem cells are already being used in treatments for over one hundred conditions including leukaemia, Hunter’s syndrome and heart disease.
The possibilities for stem research are truly endless, and yet unpredictable. If scientists can master the biochemistry behind stem cell development, stem cell technology could be used to produce replaceable tissues or organs and to repair defective tissues/organs damaged or destroyed by many of our most devastating diseases and disabilities.
We are on the cusp of a major stem cell breakthrough and must support promising basic and clinical research to realise this goal