Stem Cell Research: a new age dawns in healthcare

Thursday, October 21, 2010
Peter Sands
Stem Cell Research

Professor Pete Coffey and his team are about to conduct the first ever test of an embryonic stem cell treatment on UK patients. He hopes the treatment will cure macular degeneration, which is the most common form of blindness among the elderly in the western world. It is unlikely this will occur before 2012, however, Prof Coffey is confident that the regulator will give approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
This is due in part to the American clinical trial in which people with spinal-cord injuries will receive tissue grown from embryonic stem cells.
That study, done by the Geron Corporation, is designed first and foremost to test the procedure’s safety. That the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the trial shows what important advances have occurred in stem-cell research.
The progress has not been easy. In 2001, fetal tissue presumed to contain stem cells was implanted into the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease. The side-effects of this trial were described as "disastrous". The patients suffered severe problems, their muscles jerked uncontrollably. Later, a Cornell University researcher demonstrated embryonic stem cells could also generate pre-cancerous cells. This is not entirely surprising, considering their original role of turning into any of the 200 or so cell types in our bodies. The problem is that they share the property of "immortality" with some cancer cells.
What this means is that their telomeres (the end sections of their chromosomes) are continually being replenished. In other cells, telomeres wear away over time. Scientists have learnt to make sure the cells are differentiated into normal tissue before being given to patients. Today, the possibility of the formation of cancer just isn't there, says Prof. Coffey.
There have also been political changes. With George W Bush no longer president, the US, is again publicly funding medical research with embryonic stem cells that have been left over from fertility treatments.
Prof Coffey's group is working to develop cells to support the retina. These cells start to disappear in patients with macular degeneration. He hopes that a patch containing the stem cells placed behind the retina will restore vision. When testing begins, the group will know quite quickly whether it is successful. The question is simply, have the patients regained their sight, or not?
Prof. Coffey believes treatments for well-understood conditions such as macular degeneration, which do not require complex interactions between tissue and curative cells, will come first. He predicts that stem-cell therapies for less well-characterized and more complex conditions, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, will take longer to achieve. Ultimately, Coffey does not doubt that stem cells will change medicine forever.

Source:  Telegraph

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