Stem Cells and Diseases
The Promise of Stem Cells
Studying stem cells will help us understand how they transform into the dazzling array of specialized cells that make us what we are. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to problems that occur somewhere in this process. A better understanding of normal cell development will allow us to understand and perhaps correct the errors that cause these medical conditions.
Another potential application of stem cells is making cells and tissues for medical therapies. Today, donated organs and tissues are often used to replace those that are diseased or destroyed. Unfortunately, the number of people needing a transplant far exceeds the number of organs available for transplantation. Pluripotent stem cells offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat a myriad of diseases, conditions, and disabilities including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Have human embryonic stem cells successfully treated any human diseases?
Scientists have been able to do experiments with human embryonic stem cells (hESC) only since 1998, when a group led by Dr. James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin developed a technique to isolate and grow the cells. Moreover, Federal funds to support hESC research have been available since only August 9, 2001, when President Bush announced his decision on Federal funding for hESC research. Because many academic researchers rely on Federal funds to support their laboratories, they are just beginning to learn how to grow and use the cells. Thus, although hESC are thought to offer potential cures and therapies for many devastating diseases, research using them is still in its early stages.
Adult stem cells, such as blood-forming stem cells in bone marrow (called hematopoietic stem cells, or HSCs), are currently the only type of stem cell commonly used to treat human diseases. Doctors have been transferring HSCs in bone marrow transplants for over 40 years. More advanced techniques of collecting, or "harvesting," HSCs are now used in order to treat leukemia, lymphoma and several inherited blood disorders.
The clinical potential of adult stem cells has also been demonstrated in the treatment of other human diseases that include diabetes and advanced kidney cancer. However, these newer uses have involved studies with a very limited number of patients.
Participating in Research Studies
Scientists are testing the abilities of adult stem cells to treat certain diseases. You can search for clinical trials using stem cells (or other methods) to treat a specific disease at ClinicalTrials.gov.