Stem cells are one of the holy grails in medicine, holding the potential to regrow diseased organs, regenerate damaged brain tissue or restore lost eyesight. While the potential is there, under the silver lining lurks perils and dangers that could make a bad medical situation much worse. As stem cells have been in the news, it’s worth taking a brief look at the good, bad and ugly.
Stem cells have the amazing ability to grow into many different types of cells and body tissues. A fertilized egg is the ultimate stem cell. From this single cell, a fully formed human being develops over nine months.
Stem cells come in two primary varieties—embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are undifferentiated, meaning less developed with greater potential to develop into a variety of specialized cells. Think of a young child who has the potential to become a brilliant scientist, star athlete or business mogul.
Adult stem cells are already differentiated, more developed and specialized with less potential to grow in any direction. Much like a young adult who already knows if they have the potential to be an Olympic medalist or Nobel Prize winner.
Under the right conditions, stem cells can be coaxed into growing into specialized cells or even organs, just as these cells did for a growing fetus. The potential is there as a single cell leads to a baby. But science has not figured out how to reproduce this miracle of nature.
Stem cells can also grow in the wrong direction. Just like the young child who may grow up to be a terrorist or serial killer. This is one of the perils of embryonic stem cells. Rather than growing into healthy tissue, they may choose the dark side and evolve into tumors.
Brave new world stuff. Who is overseeing all of this? After all, we’ve all seen movies of well-meaning science gone astray, such as Jurassic Park. Fortunately, the FDA is stepping up efforts to oversee this new frontier of regenerative medicine. I’m all for reduced government regulation, but in this area sensible oversight is necessary. Otherwise the door is left open for disaster, as occurred recently in Florida. An unregulated stem-cell clinic, under the guise of a sanctioned clinic trial, injected a slurry of fat cells and stem cells into the eyes of several patients with macular degeneration. And charged patients for the procedure, which is not done in formal clinical trials. Unfortunately, these patients lost most or all their eyesight. Permanently.
Some stem-cell lines used in clinical trials may contain cancer-causing genes, another reason for FDA oversight and scrutiny. Or the child injected with embryonic stem cells that grew into brain and spinal cord tumors.
Think of stem cells like fire. Properly harnessed and used safely, it can heat a home, cook food or power an engine. When out of control, fire can cause death and destruction on a massive scale.
Before jumping on the stem-cell bandwagon, do your homework and ask questions. As most of these treatments are experimental, they should be part of a formal clinical trial. Industry or government-sponsored studies don’t charge patients for treatment, unlike the clinic in Florida. Ask where the stem cells come from. What are the benefits, risks and alternative treatments?
The promise and potential is there. A new pancreas for a teenager with type 1 diabetes. A new retina for someone with macular degeneration. Regeneration of a severed spinal cord. Someday these will be reality. But in the meantime, be prudent and vigilant. All that glitters is not gold.
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