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Stem cells are found in our body, helping us to replenish stocks of specialized cells according to our body needs as the cells are being used up or damaged during physical exertion. According to the classical view, as an organism develops, the potential of a stem cell to produce any cell type in the body gradually becomes limited. Some current medical applications include the treatment of leukaemia and cerebral palsy. As for potential medical applications, it includes the treatment of heart diseases and brain cancer.
One of the current applications of stem cells includes using bone marrow transplant (BMT) to treat individuals with diseases of the blood such as leukaemia. It can be carried out using HLA matched sibling donors (MSD) (Smith et al., 2010) or healthy individuals who need to undergo prospective allele level typing for Human leukocyte antigen C (HLA-C) to see if he/she is a suitable donor. However, due to the limited availability of suitable related healthy individual, the search for alternative sources such as hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) for transplantation becomes important. Data have shown that the survival rate for children whose healthy individual's bone marrow cells are still very young was higher than those who had MSD (Smith et al., 2010). During the treatment, the patient's bone marrow, which harbours the cancerous cells as well as the haematopoietic stem cells (HSC) that create new blood cells, is destroyed by radiation and replaced by HSC from a healthy individual. These healthy HSC then create new cancer-free blood cells. Currently, works to improve hematopoietic recovery and lower early transplant-related deaths are still on-going (Eapen, 2010).
Another application is the treatment of brain injury known as cerebral palsy. This disease affects the movements of a person but it is not due to problems in the muscles or nerves but due to abnormalities inside the brain which upset the brain's ability to control posture and movement. 10,000 infants are diagnosed annually with this disease worldwide (Harris, 2009). It usually happens to children below the age of three. A possible cause could be due to a stroke before the baby was born. The condition of the infants could be improved using cord blood (CB) stem cell infusion as stem cells have the ability to generate new cells to replace those lost through injury or disease. By using the infant's own CB, it can reduce chance of immune rejection. Currently, the children who has undergone this treatment has benefitted from it, though not to the same extent but it is found that it benefits more of those who undergo the treatment when they are young (Harris, 2009).
One potential use is in treating heart diseases. In 2001, preliminary researches in animals indicate that bone marrow stromal cells, when transplanted into a damaged heart, can have beneficial effects (Perl, wt al., 2010). Then, the research moved on to see if cardiac progenitor cells are able to differentiate into the different cells found in the heart such as cardiomyocytes, endothelial and smooth muscle cells. They seeded the scaffolds with blood vessel and heart muscle cells from newborn rats and flow a soup of nutrients through the scaffold and it grew into muscle and blood vessels (Plamer, 2008). Clinical trials have also been carried out to see the potential of stem cells in treating heart diseases. It has shown that cardiac functions have improved in the patients who participated in the trials. However, more research needs to be done as the possible side effects of stem cells therapy has not been studied in detail.
In addition, stems cells could also be used to treat brain cancers. This field is of high interest as currently, through the different techniques such as chemotherapy and radiation, the overall cancer survival rate only increases slightly (Ebben et al., 2010). Genetically modified stem cells are injected into the brains of cancer patients, which caused the conversion of a dormant cancer drug which becomes active and target tumour-killing agent (Geddes 2010). As stem cells are strongly attracted towards cancer cells, it is hoped that they will also be drawn to secondary growths, or metastases. This will enable higher doses of drug to be delivered to cancer cells and yet minimise the risk of any possible side effects (Geddes, 2010). In other cases, specific small-molecular Sonic Hedgehog-homolog (SHH) signalling inhibitors have also shown success at halting tumour progression (Ebben et al., 2010). Some limitations that the current research face is that by interrupting the pathway, it may have other side effects and also by targeting the developmental pathways, it will affect both CSC and normal stem cell populations (Ebben et al., 2010).
To date, stem cells have proven to be able to treat many serious or life-threatening diseases such as leukemias, cancers, histiocytic disorders and also inherited disorders. Using stem cells are better as there is no need to wait for compatible donors which may take a very long time and also eliminate the problem of immune rejection.