Scientists have been conducting studies using human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in the hopes of treating diseases such as Alzheimer s disease, paralysis and diabetes. The appeal of these cells is that they are able to transform into any kind of cell found in the body. Two recent studies have been exploring the use of stem cells to treat type 1 diabetes and vision loss.
Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the body destroys pancreatic beta cells responsible for producing insulin, leading to difficulty regulating and utilizing glucose. Now, researchers from Harvard University announced that they were able to use human embryonic cells to create insulin-producing beta cells in a large enough supply in order to replace the cells lost as a result of the disease. Researchers must now figure out how to prevent the diabetic s immune system from attacking these 150 million beta cells that would be required for transplant. So far, researchers have performed tests in mice, and found that these cells, when transplanted, were able to reverse hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar. However, there are still a lot of questions surrounding these results, and more research is needed before using stem cells to as a routine treatment for type 1 diabetes.
And in more stem cell news, researchers from UCLA found that human embryonic cells could be used to improve vision in patients who were legally blind due to age-related macular degeneration and Stargardt s macular dystrophy, both eye disorders affecting the retina. The researchers turned human embryonic cells into retinal pigment epithelial cells, which are destroyed by these two diseases, and transplanted these cells into the retinas of the 18 study subjects. All but one of the patients reported improvements in vision. However, researchers caution that findings are preliminary, the population treated was very small, and subjects were only followed for two years.
ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross says, There is a lot of promise in these methods of using embryonic stem cells as treatments for a range of diseases. These developments have the potential to completely revolutionize the way we treat a wide-range of conditions, and these are especially exciting because of the devastating consequences of type-1 diabetes and age-related macular degeneration, a common cause of blindness among seniors.
Finally, another preliminary study conducted by researchers at the Children s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania of 30 patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) revealed some success in treating this disease using T-cell therapy. The researchers modified a patient s T-cells using genetic material which programed the cells to attack cells with a specific protein. Following the reprogramming, the cells were transfused into the sick patient. Additionally, the modified cancer killing cells also have the advantage of being able to multiply. Of the 30 patients, 19 stayed in remission and 15 required no additional treatment. However, the therapy did not work for everyone and can also have dangerous side effects including cytokine release which causes fever, aches, drops in blood pressure and difficulty breathing. Effects depend on the severity of the cancer. However, Dr. Carl H. June, the director of translational research at the university s cancer center says the results of the treatment were beyond my expectations.