Medicine has long tried to ease, delay, and manage the pain and difficulty of the aging process: in most cases, medication, physical therapy, and machinery have always been the only solutions, but regenerative medicine is an advancing field that aims to treat disease and congenital conditions at the root.
Stem cells are essentially blank, unformed cells in the human body that haven’t yet become any particular type of cell – they could form into lung tissue, blood cells, brain cells, cartilage. Regenerative medicine attempts to use these cells to repair damage to vital organs by helping the body’s natural healing process, which has slowed through age or disease, to work more quickly and effectively. It may sound futuristic, but forms of this treatment have been used for decades, in common procedures such as bone marrow and organ transplants.
One area of stem cell research aims to help specialized cells (brain cells, nerve cells, heart cells), which have limited ability to continue dividing and self-heal once they’re fully formed, to heal themselves more easily. Other research is trying to advance the use of stem cells in replacing damaged cells with healthy cells from a live donor; vital organ transplants are an example of this area of research, but there are too few donors to meet the need for all of the transplants. Finally, regeneration, which can be seen in bone marrow transplants: delivering specified, healthy cells to diseased tissue in order to restore them.
Stem cell research is being done with embryonic as well as adult cells. Transplanting cells, along with tissue or other organs play a part in regenerative medicine, but using a patient’s own cells to accomplish the same result is also an area of interest to researchers. For example, taking cells from someone with a condition such as diabetes or degenerative nerve issues, scrubbing them clean and programming them to become the kind of cells that are needed before transplanting them back into the patient. Advancements made over the coming years could make it possible for this kind of treatment to become standard in treating chronic conditions in the aging population.