It is reported that over 4,000 registered diseases are specifically linked to genetic abnormalities with further diseases thought to have a genetic component. In light of this fact, it is important to separate the hope from the hype: it is unlikely that stem cells per se will provide fast-track miracle cures to these diseases.
However, what does appear to be the clear hope that stem cells offer is their ability to operate as ‘mini factories’ with an ability to ‘re stock’ themselves when required and develop a wide range of specialisms.
Research to date demonstrates the fact that stem cells can be used to replenish or rejuvenate damaged cells within the immune system of the human body and that damaged stem cells can miraculously repair themselves and their neighbours.
In what is regarded as the first documented case of successful gene-therapy “surgery”, scientists at the Necker Hospital for Sick Children in Paris succeeded in treating two infants diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease (SCID), a life-threatening degenerative disease caused by defects on the male (X) chromosome. The team extracted “adult” stem cells from the children’s bone marrow, manipulated the cells in the laboratory to replace the damaged gene with a functioning gene, then re-injected the cells back into the bone marrow. The repaired cells then “replenished” the immune system and “re-stocked” it with healthy cells.
Research and results
A 2008 review paper in the medical journal, Journal of the American Medical Association, (JAMA) entitled ‘Clinical Applications of Blood-Derived and Marrow-Derived Stem Cells for Nonmalignant Diseases’ (1) listed 323 published scientific reports on stem cell therapies between 1997 and 2007. More than 70 different therapeutic approaches using stem cells have been trialled in human patients and several including those such as bone marrow transplantation are now a matter of routine.
Regardless of the considerable amount of research which has gone into research in animal embryonic stem cell and nearly eight years in the human-embryonic variety, embryonic stem cell research has not yielded the highly anticipated results with a high incidence of tumour formation.
To date, not a single embryonic stem cell line has been produced from cloned human embryos, whilst there are over 70 diseases that are currently being treated successfully using adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells.
Recently, it has become even more obvious that embryonic stem cell research is unnecessary, as new research in the US and Japan published in November 2007 has shown that adult skin cells can be reprogrammed to function in the same way as embryonic stem cells.
Consequently many scientists, including the creator of ‘Dolly’ the cloned sheep, Professor Ian Wilmut, are abandoning embryonic stem cell research based more on the grounds of scientific than ethical concerns. Wilmut commented to BBC News Online, “The work which was described from Japan of using a technique to change cells from a patient directly into stem cells without making an embryo has got so much more potential.”