Regenerative medicine is a field that might sound more like science fiction than reality. However, stem cells have been used since the 1970s to contribute to the body’s natural powers of regeneration – for example, by helping to create artificial skin to save the lives of burn victims, or to treat leukemia through bone marrow transplants. Experts like Dr. Kwang Yul Cha are working hard to find other ways that the power of stem cells can be used to treat some of the common problems we face from damaged or non-functioning organs or systems. Recently, there has been a breakthrough which may one day end infertility.
What are Stem Cells?
Stem cells are special cells in the body that can produce different kinds of specialized cells or that can reproduce themselves to create more of the same kind of cell. One of the most important kinds of stem cell is the embryonic stem cell that is the start of human life. Embryonic stem cells are found in 4-5 day old embryos, and are the basis for every other cell in the human body. Scientists have learned how to activate genes in adults to stimulate the production of stem cells that, like embryonic stem cells, have the potential to become any cell in the body. This has been an important development because it means that research on these powerful cells can be done without the need for human embryos.
How Can Stem Solve Infertility?
Because stem cells have the ability to become any other kind of cell, scientists have experimented on mice to see if they can coax stem cells to become fertilizable eggs. A study conducted recently in Japan was able to make this happen, by mixing together egg cells from mice and adult stem cells that had been converted into the embryonic-like cells. The stems cells were converted into eggs, which were then fertilized by IVF and eventually produced living healthy mice.
The research is still far to early to be applied to humans, but the implications of the the research suggest that the time will come when human eggs can be created using stem cells. This would effectively put an end to many forms of female infertility, including that caused for example by cancer treatment on girls.
Of course, there are ethical questions that will need to be explored and resolved before human testing or experimentation with this application of stem cell research can proceed.
However, while stem cells are not yet being used to treat infertility, already stem cell therapy is being used to treat fetuses in the womb suffering from potentially debilitating diseases. For example, babies with brittle bone disease – a condition that can cause bones to break in the womb – are being treated with stem cells that help support the healthy development of their skeletons before they are born.
There is much that we need to better understand about stem cell therapies, but it seems that future developments will help to ensure that babies are born healthy, and above all, that they are born!