What are the potential uses of human stem cells? What obstacles must still be overcome before these potential uses will be realized?
There are many ways in which human stem cells can be used in research and in the clinic. Studies of stem cells continue to yield information about their complex capabilities. A primary goal of this research is to identify how undifferentiated stem cells become the differentiated cells that form the tissues and organs. Scientists know that turning genes on and off is central to this process. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to abnormal cell division and differentiation.
A more complete understanding of the genetic and molecular triggers of these conditions can yield information about how they arise and suggest new strategies to treat them. Predictably controlling cell proliferation and differentiation requires additional basic research on the molecular and genetic signals that regulate cell division and specialization. While recent developments with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) suggest some of the specific factors that may be involved, techniques must be developed to introduce these factors safely into the cells and control the processes that are induced by these factors.
Human stem cells and drug testing
Human stem cells are also being used to test new drugs. New medications are tested for safety on differentiated cells generated from human pluripotent cell lines. Other kinds of cell lines have a long history of being used in this way. Cancer cell lines, for example, are used to screen potential anti-tumor drugs. The availability of pluripotent stem cells would allow drug testing on a wider range of cell types. However, to screen drugs effectively, the conditions must be identical when comparing different drugs. Therefore, scientists must be able to precisely control the differentiation of stem cells into the specific cell type on which drugs will be tested.
For some cell types and tissues, current knowledge of the signals controlling differentiation falls short of being able to mimic these conditions precisely to generate pure populations of differentiated cells for each drug being tested.
Human stem cells, cell and tissue generation
Perhaps the most important potential application of human stem cells is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used for cell-based therapies. Today, donated organs and tissues are often used to replace ailing or destroyed tissue, but the need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including macular degeneration, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.