Before going ahead and explaining the possibilities that are on the verge of development based on the regenerative capabilities of a stem cell, let us first understand what a stem cell is actually. Stem cells are the basic group of cells that have the extremely potent capability of regenerating themselves. The process through which they regenerate themselves is known as mitotic cell division and after the division, the previously unspecialized cells turn into specialized cells for specific organs through cellular differentiation. These cells are not found in unicellular organisms, but are found in varying quantities within all multi cellular organisms. Embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells are the two types of stem cells that are present inside all mammals naturally. The function of the embryonic stem cells is to differentiate and form all of the embryonic organs and tissues. As adult stem cells, they are more given towards repairing organ cells, but they constantly contribute to regeneration by helping the natural renewal of skin and blood.
As the stem cells in a human being possess regenerative properties along with the ability to form specialized cells, they have been a great prospect for achieving ground breaking technological progress in the field of medical science since 1960, when Ernest A. McCulloch and James E. Till started it all in the University of Toronto. The study on cell culture has allowed us at the moment, to control both the growth and differentiating property of certain stem cells, which subsequently can be used to create specialized muscle and nerve cells. Now that medical science is able to incorporate autologous transplantations and stem cell culture successfully up to a small extent, the prospects in the next decade look bright for the field.
Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer is commonly called “cloning” and it is with cloning that some of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the future might rest. This is a laboratory process which involves removing the nucleus of both the somatic cell and the egg cell, but the difference lies in the fact that in case of the non-reproductive cell, only the nucleus is retained, while in case of the egg cell, only the nucleus is discarded. The nucleus of the somatic cell is now entered inside the egg cell as a replacement for the nucleus that was removed earlier. On accepting the nucleus, the fertilized cell starts to divide after the required stimulation. The blastocyst that forms through the series of mitotic divisions can now be called a “clone” or a genetic duplicate of the host. The use of this procedure is multifaceted and holds great promise for the future. If the SCNT procedure was performed successfully to create the stem cells responsible for a particular type of disease, then it would be so much easier to study the disease and know almost everything that there is to know about it. This extensive knowledge gained could then be used to device a cure for that particular disease or genetic disorder. If it is possible to create customized cells, then a very important step could be taken in matters of medical transplantation. The most common problem with cell-based treatments is that there remains a chance that the immune system of the patient may reject the procedure, but if SCNT is implemented successfully in the near future, even entire organ transplants would not be rejected as it would be made from the stem cells of the patient itself. Human cloning does come to mind while observing the pattern of the procedure but it is a far more complex process than cloning a sheep (Dolly). Although it is considered by some to be too complicated, others believe that stem cells hold the key to human cloning in the coming years. It all seems unreal, but it will be a reality in the future in many branches of medicine, including dentistry.
“Induced pluripotent stem cells” or iPSCs is another technology that is based on the ongoing research about possible uses of the stem cell’s properties now and in the future. This is a technique that involves making a somatic cell of the body; behave like a pluripotent stem cell by genetically manipulating it. The iPSCs have most things in common with the natural stem cells in terms of teratoma structure, chimera structure, embryoid structure along with the differentiability and the ability to regenerate. One problem that might arise while using the iPSCs is the chance of these converted pluripotent cells turning out to be cancerous in nature because of the genetic engineering that they go through. This is one of the biggest barriers that stand in front of therapeutic initiation of iPSCs in human beings, but in 2008, a scientific journal suggested ways of countering and completely removing oncogenes. The appropriate implementation of the technique as well as the entire procedure is still a few years away, but hopes are that by 2020, medical experts will be able to do all of this successfully.
We have touched a portion of the popular forms of research on stem cells that is going on today to yield results for tomorrow, let us now consider some final adaptations of those techniques in medical science that we can expect by the year 2020.
1. Alopecia or Baldness – Hair loss is a common problem that men and women suffer from all over the world, but the reasons may differ from individual to individual though. As premature baldness is a seriously undesirable effect, entire industries of hair care products and hair treatment centers have come into being, but the technology to initiate dependable hair growth is yet not available to us. It is believed that by the year 2020, growth of new hair from the scalp and restoration of old malfunctioning hair follicles can be made possible through developments on stem cell research.
2. Regeneration of external body parts (limbs) – It may sound farfetched at this moment, but due to the discovery of the P21 gene, it might just be possible in the year 2020. The function of this cell is to prevent cancerous growth when the DNA of the cell is damaged, but by controlling P21, it might be possible in the future to make the cells grow in a regenerative fashion, instead of growing in a cancerous manner. It may even be possible to repair brain cells with this procedure.
3. Regeneration of hearing abilities and teeth – Deafness is a result of malfunctioning or damaged cochlear and vestibular hair cells that are found within our inner ears. It might be possible to repair or re-grow these hair cells through inducing stem cells with proper stimulation. Although it is a success with mice already, human beings might have to wait till the year 2020 to actually benefit from this method. Expected also by 2020, is tooth regeneration. Fillings will no longer be necessary and artificial teeth will become obsolete as well, because stem cells and scaffold matter, with the assistance of signaling molecules, should allow doctors to grow perfect teeth that can replace old and rotting ones from the gum.
4. Organ transplantation – The most anticipated breakthrough that medical science hopes to achieve by 2020, is the ability to grow an entire organ fit for transplantation to the patient. Heart is the priority, but liver, kidney, lungs and other organs will also be safely transplantable once the stem cell technology reaches such a level that medical science is not limited to only growing specific tissues, tendons and cartilages. If growing an organ using the stem cells of the patient itself becomes possible, then the results could be globally influential. No one will need to donate their organs to save someone and the costs of transplantation would also come down to a more affordable level. Furthermore, the possibility of immune system rejection will also be nullified. Naturally, this would bring down the death rate among human beings due to organ failure to a remarkable minimum.