Day 080 - Regenerative medicine

Submitted by Sam on 8 August, 2011 - 22:07

The older a population gets, the greater the social and financial cost of its healthcare. With an average population age of thirty, healthcare systems will consider the treatment of minor injuries to be the norm. With an average population age of over fifty, chronic age-related illnesses like diabetes and heart disease become the daily concern for the healthcare system, and these kinds of illness are both expensive and difficult to treat. In older populations, expensive therapies are needed to produce only marginal increases in life quality and life expectancy, and this is because older populations are exposed not only to more diseases that are inherently more difficult to treat than younger populations, but because as populations age, the ratio between workers and retirees with debilitating illnesses decreases, driving up the cost of treatment.

Regenerative medicine aims to change this unsustainable trend by diagnosing diseases early and providing treatments which offer dramatic improvements in the quality of life by accelerating the rate at which the body heals itself, combating the disease itself rather than just its symptoms. Revolutionary technologies such as the stem cell therapy offer a new paradigm for medicine with profound social and economic implications.

Stem cells are single cells which have the capacity to divide and create offspring that are either an undiffentiated copy of themselves or are instead destined to differentiate into any type of cell specialized for any tissue or organ in the whole body. As they can create copies of themselves, stem cells are self-replenishing, and as they create cells that become specialized, they are a constant source of cells for specialized tissues and organs throughout the body. In contrast to stem cells, most cells in the body cannot self-renew, and instead become progressively more specialized and restricted in what they can do. Some stem cells have the unique ability of being able to differentiate into almost any cell type, and are consequently termed pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells are derived from the inner cell mass of mammalian embryos in their earliest stages of development – between four to five days old in humans – and are also known as embryonic stem cells. In contrast, adult stem cells are much more limited in what they can become, as a blood stem cell generates blood cells, an epidermal stem cell generates skin cells and a neural stem cell generates nerve cells. Whilst adult stem cells can never usually differentiate into another type of specialized cell, the promise of stem cell therapies lies in unlocking these mature stem cells and converting them back into their embryonic, pluripotent form, allowing them to replace almost any cell type anywhere in the body.

Releasing the power of pluripotent stem cells in this way would allow us to regenerate in much the same way that newts and salamanders do, growing back damaged tissues and organs to a sustained level of functionality, restoring patient independence, and decreasing reliance on chronic care. Investment in stem cells research has the potential to dramatically change the quality of individual life, and simultaneously lower the cost of healthcare and thereby boost national productivity. This kind of medical revolution is becoming critical as populations continue to get older and overburden dwindling workforces; revolutions like this are needed before healthcare systems in industrialized countries collapse.

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