Adult stem cells are the body’s toolbox, called into action by normal wear and tear on the body, and when serious damage or disease attack. Researchers believe that adult stem cells also have the potential, as yet untapped, to be tools in medicine. Scientists and physicians are working towards being able to treat patients with their own stem cells, or with banked donor stem cells that match them genetically.
Grown in large enough numbers in the lab, then transplanted into the patient, these cells could repair an injury or counter a disease—providing more insulin-producing cells for people with type 1 diabetes, for example, or cardiac muscle cells to help people recover from a heart attack. This approach is called regenerative medicine.
A number of challenges must be overcome before the full therapeutic potential of adult stem cells can be realized. Scientists are exploring practical ways of harvesting and maintaining most types of adult stem cells. Right now, scientists do not have the ability to grow the cells in the amounts needed for treatment. More work is also needed to find practical ways to direct the different kinds of cells to where they’re needed in the body, preferably without the need for surgery or other invasive methods.
Research in all aspects of adult stem cells and their potential is underway at Children’s Hospital Boston. Realizing that potential will require years of research, but promising strides are being made.