It’s likely that you have come across the term “stem cells” at some point, but do you understand their nature and capabilities? Stem cells exist in the human body and have the potential to differentiate into various cell types. They hold considerable potential for the development of future treatments, particularly concerning neurological conditions.
There are three forms of stem cells:
- Embryonic stem cells. These are found in embryos when they are a few days old. These stem cells can change into any cell in the body.
- Adult stem cells. These are found in many tissues throughout the human body, such as bone marrow and skin. We all have them. However, unlike embryonic stem cells which can form into any type of cell, adult stem cells are restricted, replacing damaged or lost cells in our body. For example, the growth of new skin.
- Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). These are stem cells that are made in a laboratory. Researchers reset adult cells back into a stem cell-like state so that these stem cells can then adapt into any type of body cell (like the embryonic stem cells).
So how do these various stem cells help to treat human illness and disorders? One example involves mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) which are adult stem cells found in the bone marrow and adipose tissue. These types of stem cells have been found to locate inflammation in the body and focus on repairing this. Chronic inflammation is a part of progressive Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, these stem cells could help to reduce swelling, repair damaged nerve cells, and help with cognitive functioning, proving a promising future option. However, this is still a relatively new field, with a lot more research and studies needed.
Similarly, mesenchymal stem cells are also being researched to help with stroke recovery. A stroke disrupts blood flow to the brain, and without the oxygen that the blood transports, brain cells will die. It has been identified that mesenchymal stem cells release growth factors that cause the surrounding cells to grow, reducing inflammation. These stem cells could also reach injured areas of the brain to promote healing.
However, there is a limitation with adult stem cells as they can only develop into certain types of cells, restricting the illnesses that can be treated. This is where induced pluripotent stem cells fit in. This is a relatively new concept that was discovered around 16–17 years ago therefore, the potential of these stem cells is in the very early stages of research. But fascinatingly, there are some insights about how significant these cells could be in treating certain illnesses.
One example of research involving induced pluripotent stem cells also involves Alzheimer’s disease. Current research is looking at using stem cells to replace damaged brain cells. Alzheimer’s Research fund research that looks at using both adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells to replace these damaged cells. The positive of using induced pluripotent stem cells allows for cells to be taken from an adult suffering from Alzheimer’s, and have these cells “reset” to stem cells. These cells can then be adapted into new cell types to better understand Alzheimer’s, which could reduce rejection as the cells initially came from the same person. This could also help personalised patient-specific treatments to be an option in the future.
iPSCs are using being researched as a treatment for type 1 diabetes. These stem cells are looking to replace the lost beta cells that occur in type 1 diabetes. Beta cells are made in the laboratory from stem cells, which are then injected into the patient. These stem cells could then mimic real beta cells, producing insulin to control blood sugar levels. This would hopefully reduce the number of insulin individuals with diabetes have to inject, helping people to live with this condition.
iPSCs are a relatively novel area of research and require further investigation to address potential risks. For instance, in the context of type 1 diabetes, the beta cells are destroyed by the immune system, which can also target stem cells. This implies that immunosuppressants may be necessary, which could cause additional adverse effects. Despite these concerns, iPSCs possess considerable potential, and it is a field that warrants close attention.
Leah Bailie is a pet lover based in the UK.