Cancer research is changing. In the right direction. Instead of focusing on expensive and harmful medications and treatments that compromise every organ in your body, research is looking for ways to outsmart the cancer.
For example, stem cell research has scientists hopeful and busy looking for ways to use these unique cells to fight many diseases, not just cancer. Stem cells are the earliest form of cells within the human body, formed four or five days after an embryo is fertilized, and before the embryo is implanted in a uterus. They are uniquely non-specific when they are formed and don’t take on specific functions (differentiate in scientific terms) until they divide and grow.
With the popularity of invitro fertilization on the rise these days, stem cells are becoming more available as any embryos not used in the fertilization process can be donated to science for research and treatments. Of course, this raises ethical concerns, since the embryo is destroyed in the process of harvesting the stem cells. The concept however, is brilliant.
Stem cells can also be harvested from umbilical cords after childbirth and frozen for use. These cells have been successfully used to treat children with blood cancers (leukemia) and certain genetic blood disorders. Since stem cells have the ability to turn into various other types of cells, scientists believe that they can be useful for treating and understanding diseases. For example, stem cells can be used to:
- grow new cells in a laboratory to replace damaged organs or tissues
- correct parts of organs that don’t work properly
- research causes of genetic defects in cells
- research how diseases occur or why certain cells develop into cancer cells
- test new drugs for safety and effectiveness
Adult or non-embryonic stem cells are found in infants, children and adults. What makes them different from the embryonic kind is that these stem cells come from developed organs and tissues in the body. Unlike embryonic stem cells though, adult stem cells can’t differentiate into as many other types of cells. They’re used by the body to repair and replace damaged tissue in the same area in which they are found. For example, mature human tissue such as nerves, bone, blood, muscle, liver and skin all have different types of cells.
Hematopoietic stem cells are a type of adult stem cell found in bone marrow. They make new red blood cells, white blood cells, and other types of blood cells. Doctors have been performing stem cell transplants, also known as bone marrow transplants, for decades using hematopoietic stem cells in order to treat certain types of cancer.
A recent breakthrough has scientists able to genetically program adult stem cells to behave like embryonic stem cells so they can be used as specialized cells throughout the body, for any organ or tissue.