SAN ANTONIO – Researchers claim stem cells have the potential to cure diseases such as cancer and diabetes and can even be used to build new organs.
Stem cells are frequently in the news in association with promising medical research.
In Wisconsin, researchers are trying to use stem cells to create transplant arteries.
The goal is to have a bank of the arteries, similar to blood banks, to put into patients with bad arteries.
Why are scientists and doctors so interested in stem cells? One reason: they are cells in the body that don't have a specific purpose yet.
“Stem cells are what we call pluripotent, which means they can become any cell in the body,” said Dr. Jennifer Donegan, a postdoctoral fellow and neuroscience specialist at UT Health San Antonio.
Donegan said pluripotent stem cells have numerous capabilities.
“When you are in the womb, you are a bundle of stem cells that are becoming all kinds of cells that form all the different parts of your body,” Donegan said.
Bodies continue producing stem cells as you age. They can be found in certain tissues such as bone marrow, the brain, blood vessels and skin.
Researchers get stem cells through different ways. One way is through donations such as bone marrow, blood or through in-vitro embryos.
The research of stem cells can be controversial.
“There is still a misconception in the public,” Donegan said.
In the early 1990s, scientists were mostly deriving human stem cells from embryos. This sparked an ethical debate since people have differing beliefs of when human life begins.
More recently, scientists have been growing their own stem cells in a lab.
Donegan and her team took skin cells and turned them into stem cells, and then they turned those into dopamine neurons for research on Parkinson’s disease.
Donegan said so many different medical researchers are using stem cells because they can be grown into different cells. She said a lot of stem cell researchers are using those new healthy cells grown from stem cells to replace the damaged cells or organs due to disease.
“If we can use stem cells, we can target each of these different cell types and potentially cure diseases that we thought were not curable,” Donegan said.
She said this type of research has really blossomed over the past 10 years and it's an exciting time for scientists.
“We are kind of right at the cusp,” she said. “We are going to start turning these prototypes into cures.”
Any stem cell treatment is required to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA is warning the public that there are illegal stem cell treatments that may be harmful. In order to stay safe, the FDA says, before participating in any stem cell treatment, make sure it is FDA approved or being studied under an Investigational New Drug Application, which is a clinical investigation allowed by the FDA.