Guest blog by Sean Summers, Research Intern at 2020health
A biotechnology firm recently announced positive results from a clinical trial on stem cell therapy for disabled stroke patients. The results of this trial lead by Professor Keith Muir, Principle Investigator for the PISCES study (Pilot Investigation of Stem Cells in Stroke) at Glasgow University are to be announced at the European Stroke Conference in London. Though this trial has been conducted on just 5 patients so far, the project is the first time human neural stem cells have been implanted in humans in the UK and the outcomes have been enough to capture health headlines across various news agencies and increase the share price of the biotechnology firm up by as much as 30%.
The announcement of stem cell research developments is fitting, not only because it’s ‘Action on Stroke Month’, but because advances in biomedical science have too long been overshadowed by the problems of the National Health Service. We should not forget those who have suffered from negligence at the hands of a service whose main purpose is care, but we must also remember the vast volume of good work healthcare in this country provides, from walk-in-centres, General Practices, and specialised treatment. The UK is one of the world’s leading hubs for scientific research and industry, soon to be crowned off with the Francis Crick institute in London.
In the past few decades, progress made in the area of cell biology and genetics has come leaps and bounds. Stem cell therapies started with Bone marrow transplants which began in earnest in the 1950s with limited outcomes. In 2011, over 3300 bone marrow transplants took place in the UK.
It is a marvel of nature that embryonic stem cells proliferate and differentiate into every type of cell in the body. Each cell switching on or off particular genes and functions, coordinating with systems of other cells to keep each other alive and produce the immense feat of engineering that is the human body. Although we retain stem cells into adulthood which can be harnessed for research, the associations with embryonic cells have resulted in some opposition to stem cell research.
The potential therapies from stem cells are obvious, though how to induce stem cells to become muscle cells or nerves, or revert into a less specialised cell type is a complex task. Manipulating the mechanisms that make cells grow, proliferate and differentiate has its risks, and can have adverse effects. Despite our knowledge of the human genome we are yet to fully understand how each molecule behaves. Although significant advances in stem cell research are being made; most clinical trials have only recently begun. Effective, clinical treatments are not as close as we may be led to believe. Conducting human trials in cell research can take a considerable amount of time, not only due to the delicate nature of the work, but also in terms of having ethical approval authorised.
This is all for good reason. Throughout the world there are many stem cell therapy centres offering cures for neuromuscular disorders, diabetes, autism and cancer. While the EU has legislation to regulate cell therapies, some governments around the world have no restrictions in place. ‘Stem cell tourism’ is a growing trend and risks leaving those paying for such therapy out of pocket, and with potentially harmful side-effects and a more advanced state of ill health.
Until our knowledge base develops further, technologies are refined, small scale trials offer hope, but should not be overstated.