'This Is Where the Future Lies ...Science Fiction within Our Grasp'
Byline: By Madeleine Brindley Western Mail
Stem cells could hold the key to a future without disease, where we can make spare parts when our body fails. Despite being one of the most exciting areas of medical research in the UK, to most of us stem cell research is a closed and bewildering shop. Health Editor Madeleine Brindley presents a rough guide to stem cells
IN THE usual post-Budget analysis of how much money will be left in our wallets every month, the announcement by Chancellor Gordon Brown of a national network for stem cell research was somewhat lost.
For the vast majority of us who exist outside the highly specialised world of medicine and medical research, stem cells mean little, except, perhaps, for a fleeting association with the late Superman actor Christopher Reeve, who spoke frequently about their potential and his hope that the cutting-edge technology could one day help him walk again.
We may also recall snippets of old news reports linking stem cells with actor Michael J Fox, but, for most, stem cells have as much to do with our experience of medicine as the complicated science-fiction instruments the various doctors in Star Trek use to patch up their crew.
And yet some of the most exciting research is currently being carried out into stem cells, research, which could quite feasibly transform modern medicine forever, bringing with it the prospect of cures for some of our greatest killers and our cruellest diseases.
Stem cells are regarded by many as something of a magic bullet - they are cells which have the ability to develop into any other cell in the body. Inside the human body they do this naturally. It is now the challenge of researchers to persuade those cells to change into something specific in laboratory conditions so they could then be transplanted into the body to repair damaged cells.
The BioIndustry Association, which promotes bioscience in the UK, believes that stem cell research, and, more specifically, research into embryonic stem cells, will not only provide valuable new information on fundamental cell biology but will also shed light on the complex mechanisms that drive diseases such as cancer.
In the association's guide to bioscience, it said, 'If scientists could develop the expertise needed to control and direct embryonic stem cell replication and differentiation in the lab it may be possible to generate many different types of transplantable cell for regenerative therapy.
'This approach could be applied to treat or correct a huge range of diseases, from age-related eye diseases to neuro-degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's or Huntingdon's diseases.
'Research is already being undertaken into the use of stem cells to derive insulin-secreting pancreas cells for treating diabetes.'
Professor Sir Martin Evans, the director of Cardiff University's school of biosciences, is regarded in the medical world as 'the godfather' of stem cell research. He was the first person to isolate embryonic stem cells in mice and show that it was possible to grow them in the laboratory.
'These cells come from very early embryos,' Prof Evans said. 'They still have many of the properties of early embryonic cells and can develop into any other cells of the body.
'The discovery of stem cells has opened up the possibility of cell-based treatments,' he said. 'Cell-based treatments are not new - you only have to think of bone marrow transplants as an example, or the transplantation of skin in patients who are very badly burned.'
Animal experiments have already revealed that it is possible to grow heart muscle from stem cells, raising the possibility of being able to transplant new heart muscle into patients who have suffered heart damage, following disease or a heart attack - the heart may be one of the body's most important and essential organs, but it is unable to regenerate naturally after it is damaged. …