Futuristic Medicine: Stem Cells

So…last month I did a bit of a rant on climate change. I decided maybe I’d do something a bit more hopeful this time, and focus on future medicine. Medicine is one of the areas where the network effect works wonders and the speed of change is pretty phenomenal.

Connection matters. Patients can find groups to interact with almost no matter what illness they have. These groups swap information, provide support, and share results of treatments. Information matters; sharing data around the world allows for faster and better results. As a personal example, we lost my little brother to cancer last year. Not good. But the support system he had was fascinating. He lived in Bend, Oregon. Not a small town, but by no means a major medical center. His oncologist consulted with (and sent test results around to) oncologists that specialized in his rare cancer from all over the country.

For a fascinating and fast-paced look at the kinds of devices either in use today or being tested, take a look at the TedX talk by Daniel Kraft on Medicine’s Future. Excellent. Very visual. It also convinced me to drop by 23 and me and order a kit to analyze my DNA. But enough about the great stuff happening in medicine at large. Let’s get more specific. For this month, I decided to focus on stem cell therapy.

As usual, newer therapies are becoming available for less money and less hassle in veterinary practice than in human healing. I suspect this is because therapy for Fido is less regulated than therapy for Fred, and there is a lot of money in veterinary science. We have three dogs and good human insurance plans. This means we spend more on the dogs than on ourselves when it comes to medicine. While we haven’t needed stem cell therapy for them yet, it’s good to know it’s available. Stem cell therapy is being used in dogs to treat tendons and ligaments and even osteoarthritis. Laminitis is a disease that causes lameness in horses. Stem cell therapy is being used to treat it in racehorses and some other horses. The therapy works to relieve pain and re-grow tissue. Horses treated with stem cell therapy for tendon issues are less likely to re-injure themselves. I also found a number of references to stem cell treatment being used on other animals, including a wild wolf in Brazil.

Now let’s look at humans. To come back at the cancer issue, we treat cancer with poison. After watching not only my brother but a number of friends go through chemo and/or radiation, I am convinced that we’ll look back on current common treatments as the equivalent of bloodletting and leeches. Stem cells have been used in cancer treatment. ABClocal reported an am eight-year-old boy whose baby sister’s matching stem cells cured his leukemia, and the Telegraph reported about a young woman with a rare tracheal cancer helped by stem cells which were used to actually grow a new trachea for her. I also found a number of articles that suggest cancer stem cells are responsible for relapse and that new treatments are being developed to kill these stem cells.

Perhaps the most interesting piece I came across identified a man who claims to have been cured of AIDS using stem cell therapy. Yep. Cured. That’s not a word often associated with AIDS in any form. In this case, the stem cells came from a donor who has immunity to AIDS.

There are people using adipose stem cells and bone-marrow stem cells, and only a few using embryonic stem cells. This removes a lot of the negative chatter and politics around stem cell therapy, and the number of success stories making their way into the news is heartening. South Korea is apparently about to approve some stem cell therapy for regular use as a treatment for Myocardial Infarction.

So what might be available in the future?

A quick search on the terms “future” and “stem cell therapy” bring up a long list of therapies in test already. Macular degeneration. Heart problems. US Athletes getting stem cell treatment for tendons by going to offshore clinics. Leukemia. MS. I could probably make a list of twenty or thirty diseases with multiple articles that reference stem cell research being done. After doing this research, I’m convinced this is one of the areas of medicine that offers real promise against a number of diseases. It’s coming fast. By five or ten years from now, I expect it to be mainstream and commonly available. The potential exists for stem cell therapy alone to change the treatment landscape. Put that together with the advances in other areas of medicine, and we may be close to another breakthrough in life extension.

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!