Model Research Essay

by Mahdi Gharavi

English 302BN2

July 26, 2007


Stem-cell research is quickly advancing, giving rise to new treatments for degenerative diseases and conditions, for many of which, adequate treatment and/or did not previously exist. Stem cells are "unprogrammable" cells that can be coaxed into maturing into certain cell types, thus can account for losses in different kinds of bodily tissues. They can regenerate cells needed for the body to fight the effects of diabetes, muscle and bone loss, and diseases that deteriorate the nervous system. Though still in its early stages, stem cell research offers the potential for new possibilities in medical care. Mahdi Gharavi ENGL 302

The Promise of Regenerative Stem Cell Research

Nearly 2% of Americans 65 years or older suffer from Parkinsons disease. Approximately 10 million suffer from osteoporosis, with about 34 million others having low bone mass, leaving them at risk. And just under 21 million Americans (or 7% of the countrys population) have diabetes. It seems to be almost impossible for anyone to go through life and not encounter someone who suffers from one of these ailments. The painful impact they have on lives, families and communities is something we cannot ignore.

But even for some diseases that were before incurable, we are beginning to see some signs of a bright outcome. Scientists in the field of regenerative stem cell research have been making breakthroughs which one cannot help but be encouraged by. Using stem cells to regenerate lost or damaged tissue, there is hope that we can one day rid mankind of some of the most devastating diseases. Stem cells can be modulated and modified to be transformed into a specific type of cell. In particular, embryonic stem cells (ES cells) retain this potential ability to produce any cell type in the body.

One of the most exciting prospects of this fact is that within a few years, researchers may finally come up with a cure for diabetes. Many have successfully been able to regenerate pancreatic insulin-producing cells that, with more refinement, can be implanted into human patients. Even more promising for finding a cure for diabetes is the research of Dr. Yong Zhao, assistant professor at the University of Illinois. Zhao has found that stem cells found in adult blood have been an even more effective than ES cells.

So far, Zhao has tested this on mice. In his experiment, Zhao drew blood from mice, extracted insulin-making stem cells from the blood, condensed the stem cells into a solution and then injected that back into the mice. The result of the experiment was a success: the mice presented with healthy blood-sugar levels for a duration of three months without receiving any other treatment.

Zhao is currently seeking a grant from the National Institute of Health to begin conducting test on human diabetic patients. Although an effective treatment is still years away, research backs up the possibility of success. Zhaos research has also indicated that in humans, adult blood and umbilical cords contain 10 times more insulin-making stem cells than fertilized eggs, allowing him to avoid controversial stem cell sources for his experiments. Canadian researchers have also succeeded in finding a non-controversial source of stem cells that is showing much promise. Satellite stem cells are a newly discovered type of stem cell, partly capable of regenerating lost muscle tissue. But as the cells split, half of the cells are programmed to do this, and the other half remain unprogrammed. Scientists are confident that this discovery can soon lead to new replenishing therapies for treating muscular dystrophy and other degenerative muscle diseases.

Another area of organ regeneration currently being looked at by stem cell researchers is bone grating. Until now, when there was a need for bone grafting, there were only two options: bone from another are of the patient's own body, or from a human cadaver. Both sources have their drawbacks. Teng Ma, an associate professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at Florida State University, currently researching stem cell methods for bone regeneration points out these drawbacks: There is a limited supply, obviously, of bone tissue that can be taken from one part of the patient's body to be grafted onto another. And with cadaveric bone...immune response and the possibility of viral infection remain a concern.

Ma has patented a method for transforming adult stem cells into bone cells. With some tweaking, the bone cells can be turned into bone-like tissue. Steps are currently being taken to develop a procedure, by which this end-product can be prepared for transplantation into patients of bone-damaging injuries and diseases such as osteoporosis.

While, these fields of regenerative medicine are all still in their early stages, there is a field that has already yielded positive results. In fact, regeneration of the nervous system is arguably the most promising field of stem cell research. Degenerative diseases such as Parkinsons disease, Huntingtons disease, Lou Gehrigs disease, as well as stroke- and trauma-induced spinal cord injuries and the loss of neurons that these conditions can cause on the human brain can be devastating. In the past, medical researchers focused their attention on how to limit the damage of these conditions after the fact. Recently, however, scientists have made great strides in learning how to replace lost neurons using stem cells, creating the possibility for restoring brain function.

In particular, these new findings are showing great potential for the fight against Parkinsons disease. The damage that this disease causes is due to the loss of dopamine-secreting cells in the brain. Dopamine regulates the nerves which control the bodys motion. The loss of the cells leads to a drop in dopamine, which causes hypokinesia, diminished mobility in the muscles. To combat this problem, surgeons first attempted to transplant dopamine-releasing cells from the patients own adrenal glands in the 1980s. This method has all but been abandoned, however, since the improvement was only temporary, and even then not enough to justify the heavy risks of the procedure. In fact, drugs currently used to treat patients often have similar results.

Fortunately, stem cell research is making way for a solution to this problem. ES cells have been noted as being an excellent source of dopamine neurons because ES-cells can be grown indefinitely in a laboratory dish and can differentiate into any cell type. So far, most experiments have shown that stem cells can be used to regenerate defects in the nervous system. Rats modified to induce Parkinsons-like symptoms were treated with mouse ES cells injected directly into their brains, and their symptoms were relieved. This improvement has been seen in humans as well. In an NIH trial, patients suffering from Parkinsons were treated with tissue from aborted fetuses. Although there were visible side-effects in some patients, autopsies on three patients who died of unrelated causes, years after the surgeries, indicated the presence of dopamine neurons from the graft.

The fact remains that we are still witnessing the early stages of stem cell research. The scientific community has only begun to realize the potential that this field holds. But what researchers have been able to achieve thus far is still remarkable. There is no denying the fact that this field will open up a myriad of possibilities for treating patients and improving the quality of life for all. And the enthusiasm, with which scientists are pushing forward despite the many drawbacks that have stood in their way, is something that humanity as a whole should be proud of.

Annotated Bibliography

  1. Fast Facts. National Osteoporosis Foundation. July 27, 2007.
    This was the fact-sheet with statistics on osteoporosis, provided by the National Osteoporosis Foundation. It contains general and specific information regarding those suffering from osteoporosis.
  2. Lanza, Robert, and Nadia Rosenthal. The Stem Cell Challenge. Scientific American. Jun. 2004.
    This article contains information regarding the trends of stem cell research, possibilities it has opened up, as well as issues scientists still face. It was very effective in explaining some key points on the field, beginning with the overview of its application. Much of the article, however, was too specific and irrelevant to my topic.
  3. Panchision, David M. Repairing the Nervous System with Stem Cells. Regenerative Medicine. 2006: 35-52.
    In this article, Panchision outlines the possibilities that stem cell research and technology provides for regenerating the nervous system. It contained a good deal of information on experiments and tests currently being done in the field.
  4. Parkinsons Disease. July 23, 2007. Wikipedia. July 25, 2007.
    This encyclopedia entry contained basic information on the disease and how it works. It offered a very simple explanation of the causes and symptoms of Parkinsons. Only a bit of the information was necessary for my paper.
  5. Ray, Barry. FSU Engineering Professor Growing Bone in a Lab. FSU News. May 21, 2007. July 26, 2007.
    This article highlighted the research of Prof. Teng Ma of FSU, and his work on bone regeneration. The article was very concise and descriptive of his work.
  6. Smith, Aaron. Stem Cells Could Treat Diabetes. June 25, 2007. July 25, 2007.
    This CNN article reported on the findings of Dr. Yong Zhao on the effects of stem cells located in adult blood and in umbilical cords that could be used to regenerate insulin-making cells to possibly cure diabetes.
  7. Swaminathan, Nikhil. Newfound Stem Cells May Lead to Regenerative Therapies for Damaged Muscles. May 31, 2007. Scientific American.COM. July 26, 2007.
    This article indicated the discoveries surrounding the application of stem cell technology to repair damaged muscles. The information regarding this particular field was helpful in providing me a good example. Much of the information, however, was too broad, and the article lacked specific information regarding conditions.
  8. Total Prevalence of Diabetes & Pre-diabetes. American Diabetes Association. July 27, 2007.
    This website contained information and statistics on diabetes. The information I needed was readily available on the site. Only a small portion of what the site included was necessary.

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