What lies ahead- Possible uses

Published: April 24, 2005
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Potential uses for stem cells could someday extend far beyond bone marrow and blood transplants. Stem cells may help to:

Replace diseased cells.
Form new tissues.
Develop new medications.
Learn about cancer and birth defects.

Replace diseased cells. If scientists can harness stem cells’ ability to become specialized into any type of cell, they may be able to use them to treat any number of diseases and conditions. For example, Parkinson’s disease — a condition marked by tremors and loss of muscle control — is caused by the loss of certain brain cells that create the chemical dopamine. Stem cells could potentially be used to replace such cells. In fact, Parkinson’s may be one of the first diseases to be treated with stem cells, since experts have already prompted embryonic stem cells to specialize into cells similar to the dopamine-creating cells.

Stem cells may also prove to be helpful in treating type 1 diabetes. With this disease, islet cells in the pancreas, which produce a crucial hormone called insulin, are damaged. Doctors could someday prompt stem cells to form new, healthy islet cells, then inject them into the liver of a person who has diabetes. This may eliminate the need for insulin injections, which are typically necessary to manage type 1 diabetes.

Healthy cells provided by stem cell transplants may one day help treat a variety of other conditions as well. These could include Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries, liver disease, arthritis and hair loss.

# Form new tissues. Stem cells injected into a diseased organ — such as a failing heart — may also one day help keep an organ functioning. They may even be used to grow a new organ. This would give a second chance to people who are waiting for organ transplants for which available organs are in short supply.

# Develop new medications. If researchers could use stem cells to generate specific types of cells found in the body, they might test the safety of new drugs on those resulting cells.

# Learn about cancer and birth defects. By learning more about how stem cells divide and differentiate, researchers may increase our understanding of cancer and birth defects, conditions marked by improper cell growth and differentiation.