Stem Cells

The Promises and Dangers of Using Stem Cells to Combat Ageing

Posted on 14 February 2020

The potential of stem cells to treat and reverse diseases of ageing is huge. Stem cells are parent cells with the ability to differentiate into more specialised cells, and thus have the potential to regenerate damaged tissue. Techniques have been developed to induce the formation of pluripotent stem cells from regular adult cells, avoiding the ethical concerns around the use of embyonic stem cells. A person’s cells could be harvested, transformed into stem cells, and used to grow new tissue to treat a wide range of ailments, from blindness to neurodegenerative disease.

Inducing pluripotent stem cells from harvested skin cells
AG, B. (2020). Cells with a Future – research magazine. Retrieved 14 February 2020, from https://www.research.bayer.com/en/stem-cell-research.aspx

And yet, medical use of stem cells remains limited. This is partly because tissues develop within a complex signalling environment. Replicating this environment within the lab so that stem cells differentiate and grow as desired can be challenging. Even then, there remains the difficulty of incorporating the new cells into the patient’s tissue. Introducing new neurons into the brain is only effective if those neurons are able to integrate into the existing neural network, for example.

In addition to these challenges, there are also safety concerns to consider. Lab-grown stem cell lines can acquire mutations in the p53 gene, a highly important tumour suppressor that regulates DNA repair. This means that patients receiving stem cells could be at greater risk of cancer if mutated cells are not screened for and removed.

These concerns have not stopped a number of companies from offering untested, potentially dangerous stem cell therapies for exorbitant fees. For example, in Australia, these included an arterial injection of stem cells for $9000, and a $12000 stem cell ”autism treatment”.

There is still hope that we may see more stem cell therapies in use soon. A large number of clinical trials are currently underway, however these typically have very small sample sizes and many will ultimately fail. It is therefore impossible to predict if and when stem cell therapy will begin to provide effective solutions to age related disease.

Read more about stem cells and longevity here: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/stem-cells-ageing


References

Are stem cells really the key to making humans live longer? https://www.wired.co.uk/article/stem-cells-ageing

Untested, unproven, and unethical: the promotion and provision of autologous stem cell therapies in Australia: https://stemcellres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/scrt543

Study signals need to screen genes for stem cell transplants: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-04/hu-ssn042517.php

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