There will probably come a day when you’ll be able to visit a website, open a drop-down menu on your computer, and order exactly the nose you’ve always wanted. Stem cells, seemingly the bodies tiny miracle workers, may hold the promise for such an amazing scenario—but is it too good to be true? Research into these wondrous little treasure troves inside our cells is nothing new, but these days scientists are coaxing them into feats unimaginable only a few short years ago.
Stem cells are a very special type of cell, in that they possess the potential to transform into many different types of cells in the body. For this reason they are called unspecialized. When a stem cell transforms into a specific cell, in normal embryonic development or in the course of structural repair, that cell has become specialized. The process through which this occurs is referred to as differentiation. In some tissues they behave like an internal repair system. As tissues need to be repaired, the stem cell will divide into two cells. Each of these new cells has the potential to remain an unspecialized stem cell, holding on to its potential for future specialization, or to become become specialized, transforming into whichever cell needed repair at that time. And stem cells have the unique potential to replicate many, many times.
When certain conditions are induced, naturally or artificially, the stem cells can even be made to transform into specific tissues or organs. Scientists in a London hospital are using stem cells to grow human ears, noses, and other tissues. Their eventual goal is to be able to grow entire body parts, even internal organs. But while stem cells certainly hint at such amazing promise, many people wonder if the promise is too good to be true. Though only a few patients have received such lab-grown tissues as blood vessels, tear ducts, and windpipes, they would probably not doubt the potential this new technology holds. Scientists at University College London are also currently developing other body parts such as noses, ears, and even coronary arteries.
Another promising potential that stem cells offer the scientific and medical communities is their use in testing new drugs. Experimental medications could be tested on them for safety and the detection of unanticipated side effects. For example, cancer cell lines are being used to treat drugs designed to combat the growth of tumors, helping scientists measure their effectiveness. Even more impactful, perhaps, are stem cells’ possible use in developing cell-based therapies. If coaxed to differentiate into a desired cell type, stem cells grown in a healthy lab environment and later introduced into the body here damage or deterioration has occurred. Some of the many potentially treatable diseases include diabetes, heart disease, burns, strokes, spinal cord injury, even Alzheimer’s disease.
Stem cells are definitely the brave new world of medical research, and perhaps the single greatest potential benefit to human health and wellness. But while it is fair to question whether the amazing promise that stem cells offer is too good to be true, their track record is there for all to see. Scientists have made impressive advancements, and are on the verge of many more. Body parts, organs, facial features… all may one day be available on a custom-designed basis. So, was that the Perky Nose 2.0 that you wanted to order? I must warn you that it’ll take two to three weeks to arrive.