Ten years ago, the topic of stem cells was shrouded in mystery, but now they’re at the forefront of some of the latest innovations in biology and medicine. Stem cells have yet to change into a specific type of cell, such as a brain or skin cell. As a result, doctors can manipulate them into, well, any type of cell they want. However, the way that stem cells are being manipulated is anything but simple. Here is a run-down of five of the most fascinating stem cell innovations from the past year.
Stem Cells From Baby Teeth
Teeth are necessary for helping us chew our food, but once they fall out. they’re useless; or not? The practice of tooth saving, or cryopreserving, has gained popularity, and for good reason. New research suggests the stem cells found in the pulp of teeth could be used to help people regrow their adult teeth (rather than needing a crown or dentures), and may even have other potentially life-saving regenerative medical benefits, CNN reported.
While still in its early stages, the idea behind tooth preservation is that no other stem cells work better than your own. By saving your baby teeth, or adult teeth that need to be removed through surgery, you may later harvest stem cells that may be used to fight certain cancers or even as therapy for brain injuries.
Babies Cured of Leukemia
Leukemia is a type of cancer of the blood, and it starts in the bone marrow, which is where our stem cells originate. Traditional leukemia treatment involves a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but earlier this year doctors at London’s Great Ormond Street hospital believe they cured two babies of leukemia using a new stem cell treatment, Technology Review reported.
The treatment involves taking stem cells from a donor and genetically altering them before injecting them into a patient. These cells are altered so that they are able to attack cancer.
According to Euro Stem Cell, in traditional stem cell treatments for leukemia patients, cells are taken from donors and then transformed into special cancer-fighting cells; however, this process takes time — something many seriously ill cancer patients do not have. The Great Ormond Street team hopes that taking stem cells from donors and genetically altering them into hundreds of doses of cancer-fighting cells will create a reserve of treatments available to anyone who needs them.
Helping Diabetes Patients
According to a study released last year, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Harvard University were able to change stem cells derived from the skin of diabetes patients into insulin-secreting cells.
Type 1 diabetics cannot create insulin, which is why patients must inject themselves with this hormone throughout the day. Although this new treatment is still being researched, injecting these stem-cell derived insulin-secreting cells into diabetes patients could control blood sugar without the need for medication.
Regenerate Brains of Brain-Dead Patients
Stem cells theoretically can be turned into any type of cell, and as suggested by a 2016 project, this includes brain cells. The project, headed by a team at Bioquark Inc and Revita Life Science India, intends to regenerate the brain cells of 20 patients that have been declared brain dead from a traumatic brain injury to see whether or not their central nervous systems can be restored, The Telegraph reported.
The team hope the stem cells will grow into new brain cells to replace the dead cells in the brain. While the treatment wouldn’t restore these brain-dead patients back to life, the research may lead the way to new therapies for patients in vegetative states or with certain degenerative conditions.
Brain balls are basically what they sound like; tiny little brains in the shape of balls. According to Wired, they are one of the newest innovations in stem cell research and could hold the answer to treating a variety of medical conditions.
These brain balls are created by coaxing a bunch of stem cells into becoming brain cells, and then using these “mini brains” to better understand how different diseases affect the brain. For example, according to Wired, these brain balls are ideal for studying conditions such as the Zika virus as scientists can see what’s actually happening in an infected brain, but on a much smaller scale.