Stem Cells Are Curing Horses — Are Humans Next?
“Doctors might soon be able to re-grow injured muscles, tendons and bones without invasive surgery, simply by injecting a person’s own stem cells into the site of an injury. Veterinarians are already doing it with injured horses, and research into human applications is well under way.”
That’s Marty Graham lead paragraph in the August 2008 issue of Wired Magazine’s story on adult stem cell research. http://www.wired.com/medtech/stemcells/news/2008/08/stemcell_regeneration . According to the story, “The National Institutes for Health (NIH) seem to think regenerating human muscle and bone using a person’s own adult stem cells is nearly ready for prime time.” The under-the-radar announcement to the NIH staff said it’s creating a bone marrow-stem cell transplant center within the NIH Clinical Research Center. Apparently while NIH sees some promise here, they didn’t want to attract attention and buried the announcement in other information.
As you well know, there are two sides to every story. In this blog we’ll try to cover the up and downsides of this most important issue. Let’s start with the upside.
The Wired story goes on to say, “Using adult stem cells — grown inside the body or in the lab — has become accepted in the veterinary community, and horses have benefited greatly. Researchers are working to bring those same benefits to humans, but there are still hurdles left to clear. The NIH project comes in part from what veterinarians have learned from injecting adult stem cells into valuable horses who’ve suffered injuries. In many cases, those horses’ careers were saved when the stem cells re-grew damaged tendons and ligaments.”
Here is where it is imperative that I point out the fallibility of animal trials. Often what looks promising in animals simply doesn’t work in humans. You can be hopeful but keep that fact in mind. Medical science could tell a million stories of promising animal tests that fizzled in humans. Does that mean I’m not excited, absolutely not — but I am practical.
The Wired story continues with, “An emerging body of scientific studies from all over the world — including a cardiac study under way in Miami and a pediatric ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) study at the Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital of Boston — is showing that using a patient’s own stem cells can prompt the growth of new muscle, from the knee to the heart. And the precursor step, using platelet-rich plasma for injuries, is on the verge of becoming mainstream.
Because researchers are using autologous cells — from the patient’s own body — the research is not controversial. No one has challenged the ethics or funding of adult stem cell research the way embryonic stem cell studies have been challenged. And because adult stem cells are native to the patient’s own body, the chances of a patient rejecting them are slim to none.”
Rocky Tuan, a Ph.D. and senior investigator in the Cartilage and Orthopedics branch of the NIAMS (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) …sees a day when there will be no need for the dreaded surgery for torn anterior cruciate ligaments that sideline up to a quarter-million people in the United States and Canada every year.
Obviously there are other benefits of adult stem cell therapy as I’ve written before. One might assume that if stem cells can regenerate tendons, they might also be able to repair hearts, lungs, kidneys and other human organs. But again, all of this could be nothing more than a pipe dream.
Stem cell treatment is not without risks, researchers say. The worst-case scenario is that the stem cells could cause cancer — or become cancerous themselves.
“You’re putting in cells that want to grow. That has to be under control or we can end up with cancer,” says Dr. Thomas Rando, an associate professor of neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Tuan also says that researchers don’t entirely trust stem cells and their ability to adapt and grow.
“There’s a nagging feeling that there’s a cancer stem cell, that when it’s agitated by exposure to carcinogens or radiation or something, it goes nuts, and that we can’t identify it from the other stem cells,” he says. “How do you find this bad boy and pull him out?”
“And there’s a nagging worry it’s the same cell. We only know these cells by what they’ve done, and by the time they’ve become cancer, it’s too late.”
The use of stem cells whether adult or embryonic is highly controversial and needs much more research. Let’s hope government, the medical community and the law will allow, even encourage it. .
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