Monday, October 03, 2011
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Science isn't there yet, but one day doctors may be able to treat a damaged heart by injecting cells that could create healthy new heart muscle and blood vessels. Or implanted cells could one day replace cells damaged or destroyed by Parkinson's, diabetes or Alzheimer's.
This emerging field, called regenerative medicine, is covered in the October issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter. Doctors are using various types of stems cells — which can produce some or all types of cells — to find new treatments for devastating diseases.
Stem cells are the body's raw material. A 4-to-5-day-old embryo is made up of about 150 stem cells. They divide and differentiate to become all cells of the body. There are several other types of stem cells, too, including adult stem cells. They are found in small numbers in most tissues. However, adult stem cells are limited in the variety of cells they can produce.
In 2007, researchers identified another category of adult stem called induced pluripotent stem cells. These versatile cells are genetically reprogrammed to become like embryonic stem cells, with the potential to produce any type of tissue. This category of stem cells avoids the many ethical and legal concerns surrounding embryonic stem cells and appears more promising than typical adult stem cells.
So far, bone marrow transplants are the most widely used application for stem cell therapy. There are a few other uses in patient care. For example, skin stem cells are manipulated in the laboratory to grow larger skin patches. These have been grafted on to large wounds. Implanted cornea stem cells are used in patients with damage to the front of the cornea.
The promise of stem cells is huge, but for now, most applications are still in their infancy. Many questions remain about how to guide the behavior of implanted stem cells inside the body. Researchers are unsure if stem cells will survive, cause tumors or possibly become some type of unintended cell. Most research remains confined to the laboratory as scientists seek to learn more.
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