What does the future hold for stem cell treatments?

Our President, Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, comments on the future of stem cell research.

What does the future hold for stem cell treatments? The question is almost impossible to answer due to the complex nature of these remarkable cells.

Decades of research has allowed us to glimpse the potential of stem cells to treat disease. It is possible they will give us life-changing therapies for multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and macular degeneration, amongst others.

First, we should celebrate successful stem cell treatments already being used routinely by the NHS, such as bone marrow stem cell transplants for leukaemia and sickle cell anaemia. Recently, at Great Ormond Street Hospital, gene-modified bone marrow stem cell transplants have been effectively used to treat very sick children suffering from severe disorders of the immune system. 

Eye disease been a prime target for stem cell treatments. In particular, clinical trials using stem cell transplants to treat macular degeneration have shown promise, noticeably improving vision in a number of participants. Professor Robin Ali, an Academy Fellow based at Moorfields Eye Hospital, has helped the UK to pioneer this research.

Turning to the nervous system, just a few months ago, Japanese scientists announced a world-first clinical trial where patients with Parkinson’s have adult stem cells injected into their brain with the hope of restoring normal function. This potential treatment is years away from clinical use, but results so far are promising. Possibly the most exciting prospect for regeneration therapy is in situ tissue repair, where doctors would activate the stem cells already in our bodies to repair damage. This is incredibly appealing as it avoids the complications of introducing new cells into patients. Professor Mauro Giacca, soon to join us at King’s College London, is using this technique to repair areas of the heart damaged by a heart attack, without leaving any scar tissue. The technique is in its infancy, but if mastered could support organs such as the heart, lung, liver, pancreas - and perhaps even nervous system tissues - to repair themselves. 

It is important not to overhype the potential of stem cells and to accurately communicate findings to the public, an activity for which Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, an Academy Fellow based at the Francis Crick Institute, is a true champion.

There are major hurdles to overcome before future stem cell treatments could reach the clinic. We must always separate evidence-based science from misleading claims from private clinics outside the UK about the potential of stem cells to cure untreatable diseases. However, with more research and, crucially, continued investment, I believe future stem cell therapies could transform disease outcomes for many patients. This will need ever closer collaboration between doctors and scientists, together with the fantastic patients who participate in these pioneering trials - all supported by an NHS that prioritises research. 

A comment from this appears in the Daily Mail - see article here 

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