Imagine having a drug that could heal you of all illnesses. Prevent all diseases. Save thousands of lives. It would be amazing, wouldn’t it? Well, you may not have to imagine it for much longer – the dream is starting to become a reality.
Now, to be clear – ‘soon’ in science terms can mean anything in the next 50 years. However, significant scientific advancements are being made right now to bring the future closer. This ‘drug’ is a stem cell – and it is not a drug at all. Stem cells are cells that are found in every single living being (excluding bacteria) in the world. These cells are indeed, essential for life.
Everyone comes from one cell. This cell grows and multiplies, creating many many other cells. These cells are embryonic stem cells. They are known as undifferentiated – they don’t have a specific function to perform. The best part about these embryonic stem cells is that they can become any cell you can think of. They could become a heart cell, a skin cell, a red blood cell, anything. For this exact reason, these stem cells are essentially for the continual growth and repairing of the body – a skin cell dies, a stem cell becomes a skin cells and replaces it. Using their natural repairing ability, scientists could repair any damaged cell – damaged brain cells that cause Parkinson’s; damaged pancreas cells that cause diabetes; damaged malignant cells that cause cancer – stem cells could repair them all.
An undifferentiated cell of a multicellular organism which is capable of giving rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, and from which certain other kinds of cell arise by differentiation.
So what don’t scientists do that? Why don’t they just give everyone that is ill a big bottle of stem cells and that’s that? Well, its not that simple. To start with, we only have embryonic stem cells when we are an embryo. After then, we use up all our embryonic stem cells, and instead have cells known as ‘adult stem cells’. These are stem cells that are already slightly differentiated – they can only become a selection of cells. Think about it a bit like a family tree. At the top of the tree is the great-great-great-great grandfather. This is your embryonic stem cell. Everybody that has come since him has been born because he existed. Then come down a couple of generations to your great-great grandfather. This is your adult stem cell. He has allowed the birth of many people, but has had nothing to do with the other side of the family tree.
So, adult stem cells are much more limited in what they can do than embryonic stem cells. What can we do about this? Well, we can harvest embryonic stem cells from the umbilical cord at birth. These stem cells can then be stored and cultured, so if they are ever needed by the individual later on in life, they can be used. Scientists are also working on ways to turn adult stem cells into embryonic stems cells, known as ‘Induced Pluripotent cells’, that can produce any cell in the body. This is still very much being developed just now, but great progress is being made. Indeed, only 10 days ago, an article was published claiming to have found a drug that can turn these adult stem cells back into embryonic ones. Also in the news are discoveries about the use of stem cells in treating heart failure, cancer, leukaemia, diabetes and many more diseases.
So there is a future where the world will be free of these terrible, often lethal diseases. It may not be here yet, but it is coming, and coming (relatively) soon.